Jay Munly, in addition to being a tremendously talented solo artist (whose latest album, Jimmy Carter Syndrome is certainly his best and deserves your attention), is also one of the two frontmen of Slim Cessna's Auto Club. If I haven't convinced you to listen to or see this band yet, it's not for lack of trying: for those frequent Splendid readers who are out there keeping score, this interview brings my total output of Slim Cessna's Auto Club-related material on this site to: two Features, three CD reviews, and as many digressive mentions as I can squeeze in. I have seen this band seven or eight times, each of which has been a spectacular live experience.
Munly (as pretty much everyone seems to call him) is a huge part of what makes the Auto Club great. His is a wild-eyed, charismatic presence on stage; he looks both hunted and haunted. Gaunt and angular even next to the accurately named Slim, he makes pronouncements about sex, death, and the Lord, often pointing an accusing finger into the crowd. Conversely, in person he is thoughtful, soft-spoken, and somewhat perplexed by how others perceive him on stage. I caught his show with the Auto Club last time they came through New York, and we discussed his solo record, the recent departure of half of the band, the musicians who have replaced them, and having a prizefighter for a babysitter. It was interesting, to say the least.
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Splendid: First, let's get a little background. How did you come to be in music? How did you come to this band?
Munly: As far as myself being involved in music, that comes from two sides: my father had made a dulcimer for my mother, so I played that a lot, and my father had a banjo laying around, my grandfather had a few, and they played. They didn't have a whole lot of musical ability. It's really odd, but now they're really proud of me.
Splendid: That's nice.
Munly: Yeah. I had a tough time doing that, as well. I'm kind of getting off on a tangent, here, but because I went to a sort of a prep school, my parents had a difficult time with me choosing music. But they've come to enjoy it. It was really odd to have those instruments sitting around. It seems like a very romantic story that my father had built her a dulcimer, but even though it's really nice, they have no idea what it was.
Splendid: What would strike a person who is not particularly musically inclined to make such a thing?
Munly: My father and I are both very interested in the Civil War, so I would imagine just through his interest in antiquities he came upon that.
Splendid: So it's maybe more about the period than the instrument.
Splendid: What about you and the Auto Club?
Munly: Oh, yeah...well, I played solo forever, even live. I had other configurations, sometimes with a band. I remember seeing Dave (from 16 Horsepower), Slim, and some of those others at my shows, and we started to talk. Slim and I particularly got to be very good friends, and I played with him and the original Auto Club with my De Dar Hee band. They were big, fun shows. Those bands both imploded, and I was here, in New York, recording Galvanized Yankee. Slim called me, and told me he and Rumly had gotten back together and were playing. I don't remember precisely what the wording was, but I found myself in the Auto Club. And I absolutely love doing it.
AUDIO: My Darling Sambo
Splendid: That was before the Always Say Please and Thank You sessions.
Splendid: As a solo artist, used to running your show, was it difficult for you to integrate yourself into another person's band? Slim has mentioned that he feels silly calling it Slim Cessna's Auto Club, because it's really very much a group effort.
Munly: Slim's a raging narcissist, so he's completely lying when he says that. And that's all I have to say about that. No, it's really not hard at all. You know, selfishly, part of the reason I told myself I'd join the band (although I still think they sort of hornswaggled me) was that I really appreciated the way the band was run, and they all seemed to get along really well. Little did I know. But part of my thing was that it would be a good learning tool for me to learn to run a band.
Splendid: Makes sense.
Munly: Yeah. I'll make more mistakes, as well.
Splendid: So what happened with Danny and Ordy and Rumly? Was it geography?
Munly: Well, I still live in Colorado. Slim lives in Providence, RI, and Dwight lives in Chicago. That's the ironic thing, in thinking it was run so well...it's just like any other band. It's not that it wasn't run well, but with families, geography, etc., there were problems. I don't have family, or really any relationship, so I don't have to take care of anybody. It's easy for me to be away.
Splendid: The solo album's title, Jimmy Carter Syndrome, is an interesting title by any stretch of the imagination. Is that an expression I haven't heard, or are you referring to the infamous Carter "malaise", or what?
Munly: I've never answered that question yet. And I still haven't.
Splendid: Did you think of the title after you recorded the album, or before?
Splendid: Have you thought a lot about Jimmy Carter?
Munly: I have a lot of thoughts about Jimmy Carter.
Splendid: Why? I would venture that most Americans don't think that hard about him.
Munly: I could give you ten different answers, but I guess one of his strongest points for me is his poetry. He's an amazing poet. We grew up similarly...he had a nanny who sort of raised him. I was in that situation, more than my parents raising me. So there are some similarities.
Splendid: It's a good title.
Munly: Thank you.
Splendid: On that album, you used Auto Club musicians (including those who have left the band). Did your experience in the Auto Club change your sonic approach? This album is much fuller than your previous solo work. Has the Club moved you in the direction of more complexity?
Munly: There are a few answers to that. The band I have now is all strings, and I had a few of them play on it. That added a lot to the sound.
Splendid: What's that band called?
Munly: The Lee Lewis Harlots. Also, we didn't have to pay for studio time. We could do whatever we wanted. I imagine that's a factor in a lot of recording. Also, I get bored with what I'm playing sometimes, so I want to do something different.
Splendid: What, actually, did you play on that album?
Munly: Stuff. That's why I don't put the instruments on there, so people won't know. I always enjoyed the look of Modern Library books. It's just a very fine text. Name of the author, title of the book, that's it.
Splendid: That's funny. I had kind of thought you might have a lyric book with this one, since I was assuming you had a bit more a budget on this one.
Munly: I didn't, though.
Splendid: Okay. Do you have a deal with Smooch, now?
Munly: I'm supposed to do another album for them. But Andrew, honestly, has been really good. The last label, I don't know what happened, but I owe them an album. This album. I have it to them, and I never heard back. I had a meeting with them, and they never showed up. I was just waiting in the lobby.
Splendid: What label was that?
Munly: War Records. I definitely thought I had put forth a real effort there, and there was no acknowledgement. Later, there was an acknowledgement. "Oh, we were going to put that out..." So I don't know what happened there, and that's okay. Andrew's doing a good job. That stuff, right now, isn't that important to me. People always say, "You've got to sell yourself", and that there's another side to music. I don't know if I can believe that.
Splendid: Did you decide not to use Alternative Tentacles for the record, or was it simply that only the Auto Club had a deal with Alternative?
Munly: Alternative Tentacles wanted to put the album out, but they were just slow. Although they've been selling it really well, I've heard. They were very nice. I think they were a little nervous about some of the lyrics, and that's why they dragged their feet.
Splendid: First song, I suppose? ("My Darling Sambo")
Munly: And they were nervous about some of the violence.
Splendid: Is that a female character narrating "My Darling Sambo"?
Munly: No, it's not. I hope, though, that my songs have different levels. I don't mean to sound pedantic, but I feel I have the ability to do that.
Splendid: I didn't find the lyrics that controversial.
Munly: I think Jello has...and I don't know if that was really a problem, but I felt that made it easier for him to say, well, let's take a look at the next one. They're very nice people, there, though. I enjoy seeing Jello. He comes to all of the Auto Club shows. He's a talky fellow. He's got a nice heart.
Splendid: I had to go on-line to find out who Jerry Cooney was in order to make that song really make sense to me. What made you write a song about "Cooney Vs. Munly", put yourself into the song, rather than just write about Cooney?
Munly: In a weird way, it's a true story. He was my babysitter, when I was really young.
Splendid: Really? The prizefighter?
Splendid: How did that happen?
Munly: Well, my parents had a summer home outside of Youngstown, Ohio. That's where he's from. So is Boom-Boom Mancini. Obviously, I stretched a lot of stuff...I imagined that he used to use me as a sparring partner. He was really disappointing, because everyone was really hoping he would win, but they really knew he wouldn't.
Splendid: What was his biggest match?
Munly: His biggest match was him versus Larry Holmes. I think that was '80, because that was the year of the Olympics. I was rather young.
Splendid: How did you end up with the classic rock-and-roll nonsense lyrics chorus for that song? Shama-lama-ding-dong, tutti-frutti, etc.
Munly: When he was babysitting me, I would picture him singing me to sleep. He was such a bad fighter, I was kind of hoping I gave him something I had, in terms of being able to sing. Then there was the problem of prizefighters losing all mental ability as they grow older, so they're sort of nonsensical words.
Splendid: "Censer From The Footlights" may be the prettiest song I've ever heard you record. A "censer" is simply a brazier, right?
Munly: I was raised Catholic. Also, I think I was taking a shot at AT there, with "censer" in the title. The word "nigger" is in that song, and they were really worried about that. But then they asked for the lyrics, I sent them, and they were completely okay with it. But I decided to take a shot at them anyway, because that's what I do.
AUDIO: Cooney Vs. Munly
Splendid: The "telegram" section in the middle, with its constant repetition of "stop" seems to say something about taking back what you're saying, breakdown of communication, that sort of thing.
Munly: My aunt is also in that song; she said something to me once that I couldn't believe she said. It wasn't long ago. She was sitting at the table, and they were talking about black people for some reason, which has never been an issue on my side of the family. She turned to me, and said "You must meet a lot of them, in what you do." I didn't have the slightest idea what she was talking about. I didn't realize she was still talking about black people, and I suppose I communicated that to her with my reaction, just slack-jawed. She said, "You know, music." Because apparently, them blacks are good at music, or something. I was taken aback by that. I've always looked at her a little bit differently since then, but I still want to love her. It's so strange. I think that's such a strange concept to hate someone, or to like someone for what they look like. I can hate anyone, but it's going to be for the right reasons. It's not that people do that only based on color. It's just that color seems the most socially prevalent example. But, for instance, someone who is overweight, people have an automatic prejudice against them. If they're a bad person, I'll hate them along with the next person. But not because of the way that they look.
Splendid: There's lots of sex on this album. Granted, the Auto Club album and even your previous records have had mentions or allusions, but they're much more prevalent here. "Girls put your titties away", for instance, on "Jerry Cooney", then that visceral sexual image in "Hang Your Cattle" about cupping the water. You've previously had a lot of death, and the carnality in death, but there just seems like more sex this time around.
Munly: I'm a lonely, lonely man. The only contact I have with that is in my imagination. I'm a lonely, lonely man.
Splendid: You've got a very intense stage presence. Did you surprise yourself, slipping into that persona when you were first performing, or did it gradually build up as you got more experience?
Munly: I honestly don't have an answer for you. I don't think I've ever thought about it.
Splendid: It's very different from your personality as we sit here.
It's a very big, different characterization. You're very sort of laconic right now, but distinctly manic on stage.
Munly: I've never really made that connection. I think we maybe see ourselves in different ways. I don't know what I, completely, am. Yeah, I think I'm quieter offstage, but...
Splendid: Before you started performing, had you seen that part of yourself emerge in any other areas? Is it mirrored when you're angry, or in any other aspect of your personality not related to performing?
Munly: I'm sorry...I'm just sort of stymied by the question. I just don't feel that different right now than I do when I'm on stage.
Splendid: Okay. Would you mind introducing us to the new Auto Club members?
Munly: Malcolm plays drums; he used to play in some punk rock bands. Judy plays bass, and I can't remember what other bands she was in. She's also in the Blackstone Bayou Sinners with Slim. Also, the Reverend Glasseye has been joining us on theremin, pedal steel, and a couple of other things.
Splendid: Theremin? Good.
Munly: Well, we hope it's good. Now we have (with guitarist Reverend Dwight Pentacost) two Reverends.
Splendid: Is he, like Dwight, an honest-to-God reverend?
Splendid: That's got to get you guys out of some traffic violations, huh?
Munly: Sure. I'm still stymied by this "stage presence issue".
AUDIO: Censer From The Footlights
Splendid: You know, from watching you on stage, I would expect you to be crazy in real life. You're very wild-eyed, and almost Pentecostal at certain points. It plays off of Slim's more declarative tone. I almost thought that it was, deliberately, the guy you portray in the Auto Club, since it plays so well off of Slim. Sort of a Flava Flav to his Chuck D.
Munly: Another thing for you to keep in mind is that people don't come up to me and tell me that. I'm unaware of it.
Splendid: Now I'm afraid you won't do it when you're on stage tonight.
Munly: Well, that's another thing. I'm not aware of it, so don't tell me. There's no conscious effort. Well, Slim and I have been working on some dances, so that's conscious.
Splendid: Do you and Slim co-write the songs for the band now?
Munly: I write them. And then Slim steals them from me. He's a thief.
Splendid: Is that accomplished through telepathy?
Munly: He just steals them. I think he stole our trailer with our stuff, too.
Splendid: That wouldn't be that clever of a theft, though.
Munly: It's Slim. That's why. See, we have the same theory.
Splendid: Anything about the new Auto Club album?
Munly: No. We don't know. We tried to talk about that a little bit on the way down.
Splendid: The Smooch press release says it will be released later this summer.
Munly: Hunh. Apparently, I'm out of the band (laughs), because I didn't know that. That does sound a little optimistic. We have enough material, really good material. What's weird is that I think we're only playing a couple of those songs tonight. It's very frustrating; this probably goes back to why some of those guys left the band. It's tough to practice. I guess I truly do love it, because you just keep going, no matter what happens.
Splendid: Well, it is a fantastic band.
Munly: I thank you.
Splendid: Your solo tour is in August. I think you mentioned that the backing band is all strings?
Munly: It's the Lee Lewis Harlots, which consists of on cello player, two fiddle players. Well, they're violinists, really. They get mad when you call them fiddle players. And an upright bass and drums. And me; they're letting me come.
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Brett McCallon is a nationally ranked quoits player.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - cheryl minton :: credits graphics ]