words Ryan Mo
photography Michelle McCausland
We’re sitting across from the bar in Chinatown’s Melody Lounge, and it’s half-past five on a Saturday. The afternoon barrels through the open doorway, interrupts red lanterns as small talk mingles with indie bangers. It’s happy hour and Jesse James Dickenson, who works under the pseudonym JJAMES, sits across from me in a gainsboro button-down and slicked-back hair. We had a smoke outside when we first met, and in the light he could pass off for a post-grad student. Now the shadows give him intimate depth, and noticeable dimples when he smirks.
On the first listen of his debut EP Rights, you’d guess that Dickenson was influenced almost exclusively by electronic music. The songs are upbeat, with poppy progressions, syncopated rhythms, and layered samples. They have a very 90’s retro feel. “I’m not really going for a specific sound, except dance,” he says. But the lyrics couldn’t be any less dance-like: songs about addiction, abuse, and death. Combined, the happy-sad dynamic of the five tracks confuse as much as they delight. “I Miss You” gets pretty graphic: Why did you make a scene? | You don’t hit so gently. |Said I’d never surrender till your head floats down a river.
It wasn’t on purpose, but Dickenson stands by it.
“The process is usually just about sound, just about a feeling. I don’t sit down and go, ‘I’m gonna write about loneliness.’ I just write what makes me feels good.”
JJAMES is a solo act; Dickenson’s first. Back in high school he sang for his friends’ band, and that’s when he started to learn guitar, bonding with friends over Built to Spill and Weezer. For a short while in college he joined up with a guitarist and keyboardist — “We actually just wanted to play shows.” But eventually the rigors of art school and work caught up with him. So Jesse put his hobby on hold, focusing on his major in Illustration. He graduated and started presenting in the Los Angeles outsider art scene, and was considered at one time an upcoming talent by pop surrealist Gary Baseman (Teacher’s Pet). Dickenson’s oeuvre was as institutionally pristine as it was raw and ludic, but he eventually grew disillusioned with the politics of the scene — he concedes that there are politics in every scene. He left the circuit, settled as a creative director in an ad agency, and turned his passion back to music.
In visual art, Dickenson has only ever created works by himself, and now he strove to do the same in music. Dickenson absorbed YouTube tutorials, learned every aspect of music production to record, mix, and master — to create without help or outside influence. It makes a world of difference, especially to someone who works in advertising, where an idea is often lobotomized by marketability for ease of consumption. “I like doing everything myself because things get watered down during the process. It’s like when you see a commercial or movie and you think ‘This is horrible,’ — it’s because you have a bunch of corporate interests and executives saying ‘I want this’ and ‘I want that.’ It loses its truth.”
He sipped his water bottle.
“We’re so consumed with consumerism that we’re not really pushing things for our own sake.”
Dickenson is serious about creating music purely from his unconscious. He secludes himself from ideological influence — he doesn’t listen to other music releases from song conception to mastering. Before, he found there would be an involuntary tendency to emulate a theme rather than develop his own.
“What happens is I would listen to music and I would try to be just like them, like listen to Radiohead and start trying to make Radiohead songs.”
Dickenson also gets in his underwear when he creates. That is to say, he gets comfortable and dances around (he’s occasionally in pajamas), and sings gibberish just to hear what comes out. As a pop surrealist, Dickenson is intrigued with a creative process that dwells on the unconscious, and readily admits his deep-seated influences of new wave and synthpop: Pet Shop Boys, The Cure, Familjen, Alphaville. He realized this after the fact. The raw process shouldn’t be discounted, either: singing gibberish has been alluded by the likes of Bjork, Grimes, Sigur Ros, and DIIV, it’s afforded Dickenson literally hundreds of unfinished song ideas to pluck and prep. He admits some are less-than-optimistic. But it’s what works.
“It’s not very bright, happy stuff, but I really just wanted to make stuff that made people move — catchy hooks, things that people want to sing, but hopefully with some integrity.”
Integrity, for its own sake. It dictates JJAMES and Dickenson, who confesses that the project was once considered for a label’s roster. In a conversation with the label, Dickenson was asked to tone down the dance elements, “the electronic and the beats; make it more subtle.” He turned down the offer.
Dickenson tells me about his show earlier this year at Grandpa Johnson’s. His friend Francis was doing interpretive dance, and his brother happened to capture it on video. Dickenson tells me that as he was singing, he saw a man flip out and dance in the crowd. It gave him a satisfying feeling. Later, he recalls seeing a Baths show in Lincoln Heights and being blown away by the energy during a thirteen second-long interlude in the ambient set. He strives for that state of emotion.
“I just want to see people move again. I think with the way we become disassociated with each other – and when we go to social events it tends to be this sterile observation (which I’m guilty of, I do the same thing) and it’s like, I just wanna see people move again. I just wanna see people get in the moment.”
He’s been slowly playing out more to facilitate this.
“I do local shows, and I do shows out here when they come up, I tend not to look for them, just wait for them to present themselves. I’ve been branching out. It’s hard to balance that — going back in the studio and doing what I love to do or doing a live performance. You gotta write new material; you can’t just write songs over and over.”
Speaking of new material: Dickenson’s already lining ideas up for a new album. He’s cautiously optimistic, noting that things will be easier, more honest the second time around.
“You know how people always say that, as a millionaire, making your first million is your hardest? I feel like this EP was my first million — not that it’s going to make a million or anything, but in the time it took to learn everything, understanding the process, what works and what doesn’t work for me. I feel like this next album is gonna be more true to myself because it’s gonna be about the concepts rather than figuring out how to string them together. I don’t think it’s gonna be easy by any means. There has to be some struggle.”
When he’s not immersed in the struggle, Dickenson does try to relax. A while back he visited the doctor over some questionable symptoms (“Doctor, do I have AIDS or something?”) only to find out that he wasn’t managing his stress. He still paints, and sometimes he’ll write short stories, or watch stand-up comedy. Then there’s video games — he’s been getting into Destiny and Rocket League and Metal Gear Solid V. He also “does” photography (“I hate that — I do photography,”).
For someone who deals with macabre topics in his songs, who once painted a disembodied head floating in its own blood for an exhibit, few things creep Dickenson out. The ones that do aren’t conventional, either.
“One is the word ‘moist’. The other one is… My brother does this impersonation of a cholo… It’s so spot-on that it gives me chills up my spine. It really grosses me out. But I hate ‘moist’ the most.”
JJAMES released the debut EP Rights. Stream it for free now on his website youaredust.
You can check out more from Ryan at: monaryst.tumblr.com
To see more photography from Michelle, you can follow her on IG: @himccausland
Posted on September 14, 2015
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