Everybody Loves the Drummer

An Interview with Jason Batchko

Jason Batchko is a local musician, drummer mainly, for a host of different bands around Chicago, both past and present. Among the most recent endeavors are Integrated Cookbook, Feather, Canaries, bicycle, tricycle, and Caviar. He is an extremely versatile performer, drawing upon several different styles of music as inspiration for his myriad contributions. Also of note, he teaches drums around the north suburbs and has a music degree in Percussion Performance from Lawrence University (Appleton, WI). He is currently finishing the first Integrated Cookbook album and you can hear some of that album on the band’s myspace profile. You can also see Integrated Cookbook play on the second Tuesday of every month at Katerina’s.

The first time I saw Jason play anywhere was as The Girls at Cal’s a million billion (okay, about five) years ago. Total energy and so much fun, he’s an incredible, dynamic guy to see play. Anyway, about six months ago the idea came to maybe interview somebody for keepgoing and I immediately thought of him because he’s also an incredible, dynamic guy to talk to. So that idea sat there, in its theoretical stages, until by chance (or not) we ran into each other at Schuba’s about a month or so ago.

When I first approached Jason about doing this interview, I was pretty drunk and talking mostly about myself, which is not necessarily highly unusual (like now). After a few days of sober reflection, we spoke on the telephone while he was cooking bacon and he asked me what to do with the leftover bacon grease. On at least two occasions since then I have informed him of exactly what he can do with his bacon grease and made a half-hearted promise to bring him back some bacon from one of our many Wisconsin trips. In exchange, he promised me Rick Springfield’s phone number. These are just two of many half-hearted promises made during the course of our contact that have yet to be fulfilled. He will flatly deny any such promises or discussions ever took place. Go ahead, ask him.

We first talked about whether he’d had the chance to take a look at the site, because I wanted to make sure thatgiven our heavy political leaningshe would want to be on something like this. When I mentioned ‘political leanings’ he said something to the effect of ‘like us’ so I figured it was fine.

… No, I’m a fundamentalist Klansman Muslim Christian. Hey, is Graham Smith the same one from Kleenex Girl Wonder?

You know, I don’t know. I’ll have to remember to ask Blythe. It’s her dad.

Probably not the same guy, then.

Probably not, I guess. [He is smoking a cigar in the privacy of his home.] I don’t know anything about cigars – how is it?

It’s not bad. I still haven’t made up my mind about it, but I can feel it working already… like I could get mad.

Do you get mad?

Yeah, in cars. Or at bill collectors. I’m trying to be more organized sometimes. It’s not working.

Aren’t you self disciplined, then?

I can be but then sometimes I’m not.

How do you stay focused?

Whip myself with a riding crop.

Uh huh… but you play multiple instruments, you must practice some of them on a regular basis…

I still practice drums. When I pick up a guitar it’s more to try and write songs. But I’m really a basic guitar player. I’d like to sit and practice guitar more to feel more in control of it because it kind of gets away from me a little bit. Sometimes I can really control it, but other times if I have something I have to work towards. Then I work at it more. Sometimes I’ll just get inspired, maybe from watching a movie. Or drinking. You have to be disciplined or crazy or both to do this professionally. When I teach, that’s my structure. It can get difficult. But at least for now if the choice is to teach to pay for things, or get up early in the morning and go somewhere everyday… going to mansions on the North Shore to teach drums – it’s not so bad. It’s fun seeing people play drums. It’s interesting and inspiring when they’re really into it and improving.

And you’ve been playing drums for a little while…

I’ve been playing drums since 11 or 12. Everything else is pretty much self-taught and what friends would show me. Drums and percussion I studied in college. In terms of what I’m doing, it’s not that important; but had I wanted to take that further and get another degree, I guess it would still lead to teaching. But I learned a lot and I had a cool percussion teacher who knew a lot about different music from the planet, and the chicks dug him. My older brother went to music school, he plays saxophone on bicycle, tricycle. I learned a lot about different kinds of drums and music from different countries… planets. I like a lot of folk music, and old country music, and I like to hear what people are doing around the globe. I learned a lot going to school.

And the other instruments you play?

I play guitar, piano, and a little harmonium. The harmonium I got from India in ‘99 or 2000. I wanted to go back and visit some people that I had stayed with in college when I studied tabla. I bought it there for $75. Plus the thousand-dollar plane ticket. I saved up my lawn mowing money. But even before I played instruments I always wrote songs, always wanted to. I was always very inspired by rock ‘n roll musicians as a kid. I really like the Beatles, like learning Yellow Submarine in grammar school. But after that my first real inspiration was Little Richard. He still is kind of my favorite. He was really the real punk rock, the whole way he played. The whole style was rebellious and awesome. His songs were incredible, he was wild, kids liked him and parents were very afraid of him. I didn’t think about it like that at the time, I was just thinking, “Who is this? I want his record.” I was too young to understand his importance, but I just loved him.

[The song “Goodbye, Babylon” plays in the background.] American folk music1. What draws you to this type of music?

I like a lot of different kinds of music. I’ve always liked old folk music, old blues, old gospel. I just like the sound of it. I think I have an over-romantic notion of the time and place of this music. I picture myself wanting to be there like it was a really good life, but it probably wasn’t. I like things that sound real. Even if it’s electronic music, if it sounds like it’s coming from somewhere.

So is Integrated Cookbook the most recent thing you’re doing? Is it just you?

It’s just me, but I recorded the CD with other people. When I do the shows, it’s just me. The songs I wrote acoustically, some a cappella. Some of the songs I wanted instrumentation, nothing too complicated. But I like to perform solo, even though it’s a little nerve-wracking. I think the songs lend themselves to the solo thing.

So you’ve been playing out?

I’ve been doing a monthly show at this really neat little club called Katerina’s.

Yep, I totally know that place. Does she throw plates at you?

She did – not at me, but in front of me. Or next to me. But I was really excited when that happened since I played La Vie en Rose for her – an acoustic guitar version, and she got all excited, she really liked it. Integrated hasn’t really played other than that place, really – every second Tuesday. It’s got a Euro-Greco vibe to it. It’s really nice.

When is the Integrated Cookbook album coming out?

I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet – distribute it, anyway. I have to get the final mastered version back. I might print up a bunch of copies and have some friends do artwork for a homespun cover, and sell it at shows and local record stores. At the same time, I could try to send it out to some labels that would be a good fit.

On myspace you have it set up as “major” under label. Does that mean you are looking to be signed by a major label or that you are on one?

My friend Tom Szidon, who plays on the CD, set the site up. I never asked him what he meant by type of label. He’s good at organizing that kind of thing. If it meant “am I looking for one,” yes, I’m interested. If it meant “are we on one,” yes, we’re on one.

I think I pulled up everything of yours on myspace, so I’ll just ask you about those: Feather? Work in progress?

It’s a relatively new band. We toured with Audioslave. We’ve all played together before, but Jonny Polonsky, who produced the first Girls record, and Sol Snyder live out in LA. Jonny was looking for more of a collaborative effort as opposed to a solo effort. He gets hired a lot by Rick Rubin and does a lot of playing on albums, like the posthumous Johnny Cash record that’s coming out. They’re still working on it because there are so many songs and they wanted a little more stripped down production from the professional Nashville production, but they kept Cash’s voice and guitar. Jonny plays on it and the guys from Tom Petty’s band play on it. So Jonny’s been really busy with that. But when that gets over with, we’ll spend some more time recording and put something proper out.

What about Canaries?

That band is Tom Szidon and James Webb. James also lives out in LA and is busy with The Webb Brothers. On the five-song CD, I play drums. If we ever play out I’ll play drums, but we’ll have to go out there. Song-wise, it’s Tom and James’s songs.

Are you the one that’s always traveling? Long distances and such?

Sometimes its 2,000 miles, sometimes its 2,300 miles I’m traveling, depending on if the plane has to re-route due to hurricane or civil war. I’ve got a lot of friends that live out there. I kind of make a vacation out of it to visit people.

Earlier you mentioned bicycle, tricycle – the last album you did all the drums.

Bicycle, tricycle is my friend Bohb Blair. He’s had this band for a while but always had this revolving cast of musicians. He worked at the Metro as a sound guy and he currently works all over town. He would record a lot of songs on his home studio and whenever he would have his shows, whoever was available would do it. I needed someone to record this one song I wrote, and it lead to him asking me to record some drum tracks, and it just naturally led to me doing most or all of the drums on the last album. I’m pretty sure I’m on most of the last record. So that’s how this band as it currently is came about. Integrated Cookbook was recorded by Bohb here, and at his place.

And Caviar – is this over or just on hiatus? Sorry to keep harping on the myspace thing.

The band still talks, but has disbanded.

What brought about the end?

We were getting tirednot of each other, but trying to… let me think… I guess it just ran its course. The two albums came out and the music was doing really well on its own, but we weren’t getting the support from the record label. We’d parted ways with Island, then got signed to Aezra, a privately funded label that had a lot of money they were throwing around. So it looked like it was going to be good, but they didn’t know how to run a record label or spend the money. We were getting a single played in England and they were playing the video over there. But then Aezra really didn’t have the record or the advertising thing together. They didn’t have enough copies of the record to sell – they did half the job, half well. So that was frustrating. Then our manager was trying to get another label, and that was taking too long, and then no one really had it left in them to try to self-promote, go on the road, then make a record and figure out how to release it. It was kind of beyond that point already. And I think we were all getting tired of the non-music side of it as a group. The difficulties that Caviar as a band was having with the business side of it. We’re not opposed to working together again at some point, we didn’t leave hating each other. We all blame everyone else for that. Like, Safeway wanted our song and they used it. It had a Lou Reed sample in it and he said we could use it, but he wanted 100% of the royalties. We’d rather have it than not, and according to what I heard he liked the song, but since he wanted the royalties, we never got any money from that. At least I didn’t, anyway. That was happening when the whole England thing was going on and we just couldn’t take it. But that’s a little extra story. It was kind of a miserly thing to do. It made little difference to him and would have made a lot of difference for us. Like if I had five thousand gumballs and he wanted two, and I said ‘no.’

Do you have hard feelings about him? You list him as an influence for Integrated Cookbook and you can hear it in songs like “To Be Continued”.

I like his songwriting a lot. He’s a big influence. People like him are influences. I see a weird connection with him and this stuff that we’re listening to now. And Willie Nelson and Irving Berlinsome are more simple, others a little more complicated. But lyrically there’s something human about it with a little hookpop music and folk and rock ‘n roll in the true sense. I get influenced by people like him, but I could throw in a lot of people that some would say “they don’t seem anything alike.” If they strike that certain chord with me, that just gets me in the right way… but I have no hard feelings towards Lou Reed. Just empty pockets.

So when you write songs, is it more like on purpose or on the fly, music or lyrics first? What?

I usually will sit down and start writing or will have a melody in my head. Usually with lyrics and melody at the same time. I will rarely write down lyrics without a melody. Sometimes I will only have part of it, forget about it, start it, then forget it. If I’m inspired by something, I sit down and write it. I don’t write “this song, in this style.” I don’t think I can, like, write a Beatles song or a Green Day rip-off. People do and are good or bad at it, but I can’t really do that. I don’t think I think that way. Maybe when you hear a song of mine you might think it sounds like this or that, but that just happens naturally. I don’t attempt to sound like anybody, or copy their style. At the most I want to try to write heavier tunes or a rock song or a ballad. When I’m planning on something it’s a little more generalized, but not in terms of who I’m trying to sound like. If I happen to be listening to some style of music a lot, it will make its way into something I’m writing.

Are you still doing The Girls?

A lot of the songs I’ve been writing have been in the vein of Integrated Cookbook. The Girls still exist, but we haven’t played in a while. We’ll do a show again soon, probably in the next couple of months.

I was going through other old shit about you on the webI’m So Happy You Called and stuff. Do you not do it anymore? Because the site hasn’t been updated since 2002, it said. Which is too bad, because it’s really funny.

I owe them money. Jesus Christ. I still do the pranks, I just haven’t changed the website at all.

You have film credits in a couple movies. Greg Pritikinshould I know who he is?

You should, so I’ll tell you about him. He’s one of my oldest friends, he used to live here with me, and is an up-and-coming filmmaker. His first movie Totally Confused was filmed here in Chicago, and got its first real release last year on DVD on this art house label. Milla Jovovich and Adrien Brody were in Dummy, which was made right before The Pianist and while Greg was trying to shop it to sell, he [Brody] won the Academy Award. That really pushed things ahead for Dummy. He puts me in all his movies. I’m like his Mia Farrow except I don’t speak, and he doesn’t sleep with the child the two of us adopted. But he’s one of my dearest friends and he always calls me when he’s making a film. His latest film Surviving Eden is doing the festival circuit, which I have another bit role in, but bigger. But I still don’t talk, unfortunately. Or fortunately.

At this point I give three letters written especially for him, which I had warned him about in advance. Since no one ever has, I assured him it was totally fine for him not to respond. But he did, which is ever so awesome of him.

Letter 1: Pertinent Idiocy

Dear Jason,

I think the title of the letter sums it up rightly and I can’t promise where this will go. Much like cave-dwelling or mayonnaise on fries, it’s not for everyone.

That said, it seems like you have some pretty strong connections out of town. What are you still doing here? How powerful is the draw of Los Angeles? I have never been there, but the vision in my head pretty much consists of a glammed-out, plastic, lips and ass fantasy. Are you skipping town and if so, how will you keep the pluck and scrappiness so common to us midwestern folk?

While some may consider you the hardest working man in Chicago, it is obvious to me that you have issues with commitment. Have you ever accidentally called out the name of one band while you were with another? What won’t you play, for any amount of money? What are you not doing right now that you wish you were? What can’t you do that you wish you could? Do you know any parlor tricks?

And speaking of tricks, I assert that everyone has at least one superpower. For instance, I am Un-Electricity Girl. Meaning that I can make electrical equipment malfunction by my mere presence (this is true). But my ambivalence toward choosing good versus evil precludes being able to reliably channel or harness this power to its full effect. What superpower do you possess? And speaking of superheroes, there are so few who sport a moustache. Have you ever grown one?

A wise man with a Fu Manchu once said to me, “Packed with layers of meaning, cymbals really satisfy.” Can you elaborate on that? Because I’m not really sure I understand what he meant.

Blonde,

H

In Response to Pertinent Idiocy

While it’s true I have some pretty strong connections out of town, the connections aren’t strong enough (yet) to win out over the incredible soul food that can be found in Chicago. While we lost a classic, Gladys’ Luncheonette, a few years back, there are still some great spots peppered throughout the city. You just have to dig a little deeper, try a little harder, work a little longer to find them.

Now, if that’s not an example of someone who’s totally committed, they should be.

As for the guy with the Fu Manchu, if he didn’t say it in Cantonese, I don’t know what he’s talking about.

Letter 2: Vague Threats

Dear Jason,

Sometimes I find myself consumed by the realization that one day I will just stop breathing. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Perhaps it is the combination of all those criminal forensic television shows giving us a collective imagination that somehow we are next, that someone is planning to kill us and hide our body, that eventually we will all end up dismembered. Do you ever find yourself fantasizing about a tragic death? What sort of plans are you making to avoid or encourage this probability?

I think this paranoia is furthered by reality shows and over-coverage of events, leading to widespread acceptance that all your shames will eventually be televised. Your presence on this earth is reasonably well documented on the web, what with your musical whoring and walk-on film parts. History makingisn’t that what we’re all doing here anyway? With that in mind, what do people say about you most often? What is the creepiest thing no one else knows about you? What keeps you from murdering people in the streets? Is there anything you would like to apologize for?

I’m sorry I ever have to get out of bed and think that people should just stay inside, to stay out of trouble. What’s so great about leaving the house? Ever notice anybody following you around? Do you ever get the feeling that you are being watched?

The most important question of all: What are you wearing right now?

Never mind – I can see you from here,

H

In Response to Vague Threats

I think about tragic death every now and then, usually it’s involuntarythat is, the thought of it. Thinking about death in its many forms is a part of life. I wonder if we think about life often after death. I’m listening to Max Roach play drums right now. He’s good. It’s an old record on Mercury. I think they were a Chicago label.

What do people say about me? Most often? Oh, I don’t know, “There goes Jason, he’s real… ”

The creepiest thing no one else knows about me? Well, I’ll let you in on one… I play backgammon against myself. But I got the idea from Bob Dylan. So there, the story is out!

I won’t answer the murdering people in the streets question because I don’t have the answer. It makes me nervous. Sometimes I wonder if a switch could go in the brain that you have no control over, and voila! axes are flying!

Apologies? Well, I’m sorry I didn’t buy stock in Krispy Kreme seven years ago when my friend Greg and I first discovered them in NYC. We were mesmerized, and it wasn’t a big deal yet. In fact, we bought a box of them to hand out to people in Central Park, by the Lennon Memorial, just to see what they thought. We were still the most impressed. I would have bought stock, but I spent all my money on their doughnuts.

I leave the house often so I can constantly have the feeling of “Oh, it’s so nice to come home!” – Sinatra sang about that.

I’m sure people must be following me. There’s a stranger in my bed at least once a week.

Can we be done with this letter now? Thank you.

Letter 3: Just One Question

Dear Jason,

Now comes the free-associative portion of our journey together. Please note that the following series of choices are not necessarily opposite by nature nor mutually exclusive. The purpose of this exercise is to surreptitiously draw out your best hopes, worst fears, secrets, lies, and betrayals. Proceed with caution and choose wisely – everything will be held against you.

Would you fight or support a war to keep Texas? Alaska?

Which is more probable: coincidence or predetermination?

What is more likely to save us: repentance or sacrifice?

Would you rather be ugly or stupid?

Do you prefer sweet or savory?

Monster ballads or death metal?

Hermaphrodite or transvestite?

Witchcraft or voodoo?

Daisies or dandelions?

Chicken or beef?

Fried or boiled?

Oil or water?

Rain or shine?

Six or seven?

Bass or drum?

Tom or snare?

Tom or Jerry?

Cats or dogs?

Three Dog Night or Yes?

Yes or no?

Me or you?

H

In Response to Just One ?

1. I’d help Alaska fight a war to get rid of Texas

2. Probably both

3. Neither – we need a black female Jesus

4. That’s not nice

5. Pancakes with bacon

6. Death ballads

7. Hermaphrodite – ‘cause they have a “phro”

8. Bat mitzvahs

9. Truffles

10. Cowduckin

11. Oh please, that’s easy

12. Ask the birds

13. Come

14. That’s about right

15. Put the 2 together and you really got something

16. Tom –when practicing voodoo

17. Jason

18. Beggars

19. They both had it going on

20. I positively can’t respond to that

21. You know that one

1 My words can never do this justice. You will find a beautifully written review at Pitchfork.

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