Wu Tang

The Magazine

May 26, 2011

Black Jake and the Carnies

Black Jake  Band Photo

Band Members: Black Jake – banjo, vocals Joe Cooter – bass Zach Pollock – mandolin Bill LaLonde – drums/washboard, vocals Jesse Miller – accordion Gus Wallace –fiddle

The self-proclaimed “Kings of Crabgrass” talk about their theatric style, broken ankles and why they love being a part of the Ann Arbor/Ypsi community.

by Paul Kitti

Of all the bands originating in the Ann Arbor/Ypsi area, Black Jake and the Carnies pride themselves in being the most manic, offbeat and theatric one around. While their live shows are rambunctious and reminiscent of some dark, southern back-porch dance party, their actual music certainly isn’t offbeat, with the six talented musicians approaching classic rock structures with energetically-wielded bluegrass instruments. They have performed all throughout the Midwest, including venues such as The Ark and the Magic Stick, and they recently embarked on a certain-to-be-crazy European tour. But before taking the stage on bluegrass night at the Circus Bar in Ann Arbor, we had a chance to sit down with Black Jake and his lively carnies to talk about their music.

Can you explain what you consider to be some of the elements of crabgrass music?

Jake – Basically we take a lot of Americana roots genre music and mix it up a little bit with stage antic theatrics and whatnot, a little bit of circus stuff and punk rock, and put it all together. And we always play it faster than we record it, that’s our philosophy.

Joe – Crabgrass is an aggressive style of music. The first couple shows we played, we were all sitting down, but pretty soon everyone was moving and jumping around. I can’t help but do that.

Bill – We all kind of have a special ingredient—brew it in a musical bottle, cap it, then we show up at a show, shake that bottle up, pop the top off and cover the crowd in fizziness.

Mark – The first year we played we were wearing overalls, but that went out really fast. One of the interesting things about the music is that even though it’s pretty aggressive and off the rails, we all know what were doing at any given moment.

Where do you draw inspiration for your lyrics and some of the stories they tell?

Jake – Whenever I get particularly angsty or down about something, where I don’t feel I have anything I can do about it, I try to write a song about it somehow—whether it’s directly about the thing or just a made up story.

Bill – Jake pretty much writes awesome lyrics and good skeletal structures of a song, then everybody in the band adds accent to it, and it comes together in one magical Black Jake vision.

What inspired your band name?

Jake – I really can’t remember what made me think of the band name. I think the Black Jake part was supposed to be pirate-y or something… I guess it reflects the whole duplicity of entertainment where it’s supposed to make everybody happy, but there’s this undercurrent of evil or untrustworthiness, like it’s setting you up, like a con. Like you take a dead rat and put it in a cotton candy machine and hand it to a kid, and say “Hey, here’s some cotton candy!”

Bill – I’m missing three permanent teeth that I was actually born without, so it’s a natural fit for me to be called a carnie.

How did your wild stage presence evolve?

Jake – It all started with Joe. Joe was the first one to start jumping around, then Mark did, then everyone else did… Except for me, I don’t play games.

Zach – We played this one show in Jackson where the stage was a trailer, a wagon almost, and it had spring suspension, so we were playing on it, and it was rocking back and forth. Then we just started jumping, and it started rocking like a trampoline. It was hilarious and everyone enjoyed it. I think that was a precipitating moment.

Bill – All of us really enjoy doing this. It’s straight up fun, and the more we played together it just snowballed. We were having a good time on stage, and hopefully that started to spread to the audience. When we first started, I actually played sitting down, and everybody was moving around so much and having such a good time that I eventually felt jealous and was like, “Well, I’ll have to learn to play the drums standing up.”

Joe – I didn’t start playing music until I was in my late twenties. I promoted music and I was into music and I had always wanted to be on stage, so, for me, it was a dream to up there. When I was finally able to, I wanted to let 30 years of pent up energy loose and jump around.

What are some of your influences?

Jake – The Pogues are probably the most obvious [influence], but there’s Jonny Cash and a little Gillian Welch in there and some random old timey music. Sort of vicariously, maybe some Alice Cooper and Misfits stuff, just for the theatrics of it.

Jesse – I started learning to play the accordion because I was listening to bands like Gogol Bordello and Devotchka that have more of an Eastern European thing going on, and even to a lesser extent, The Decemberists. I liked the way they were using the accordion. I liked the minor key of it, but they also still kept their energy up… We’ll get the crowd into a groove then we’ll just stop and change the tempo completely. It’s a lot of fun watching everyone try to adjust to it.

Bill – We’re just trying to break ankles all across the Midwest.

Mark – I destroyed my ankle in Kalamazoo trying to jump from a post. I put one foot on it, jumped backwards and just rolled it. I was like, “I probably just gotta stretch it back,” so I stomped on it as hard as I could. I played the rest of the show standing on one foot and Zach carried me to the car after. There was this chick that was a nurse that said, “I can take care of you,” and I was like, “No, I’m cool.” Later, I was like, “Why didn’t I just have that hot chick take care of me?” I was sitting there with a bunch of ice and duct tape wrapped around it after this Kalamazoo nurse had offered to nurse me. What’s wrong with me?

Jesse – Mark is the most injured carnie.

Why do you think music is an important part of a community?

Zach – Music is a true expression of humanity. It’s who we are and everybody has music in them. It’s just real, It’s not contrived… On various songs we invite people to come on stage and we encourage the audience to learn the words and sing along because it’s all a part of engaging with people and singing together.

Joe – For me, music is connection. My family has always played music, and I played with them. This band is all about community and family. To me, there’s something so cool about being connected on stage in that expression or performance—it’s unlike anything else.

Bill – I think music is still one of the only things that a lot of people can get together all at once and rally around and have a good time. And, if they don’t like the music, they can huddle in the corner and bitch about it together. It just unites people, so it’s automatically going to give us a sense of community.

Jake – We’ve all got wildly different political and religious views. With the band, when it all comes down to everybody just singing along, all that stuff doesn’t really matter and being human is what counts.

What was the process of recording “Sundry Mayhems” like?

Zach – We took a longer, slower and more deliberate approach to the whole project. And I think, as a result, we’re gonna be happier with the end product.

Bill – I think it was a lot more fun to make this record than the last one… I think this one had more vision, and we had a better time recording it because we would all get together in the studio and work on things together, whereas the first one was pieced together here and there. This one was more of a long, drawn out process and a little more complicated, but I think it was more like a labor of love.

Jesse – The band was still kind of forming when the first one was recorded… We weren’t a cohesive unit. We weren’t as you see us until a couple months after that.

What are some things you like about the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area?

Jake – Everybody is really cool. It’s home. And people are not afraid to dance around here… We need feedback from the audience so we can figure out the ebb and flow of the set and make changes. In Ypsi and Ann Arbor, people are quick to dance, and it’s really encouraging—especially at Circus.

Bill – There’s a really cool artistic collective where a lot of people know each other. It almost feels like when you go to a show in the Ypsi/Ann Arbor area, you are a lot more involved and a lot more invested in it. I think that helps out and people enjoy themselves more. In this area, you also get a lot of really cool outside influences—people that aren’t from the area that just come to check things out, like on bluegrass Wednesday nights at Circus. This place fills up, and people have a good time dancing and jumping and sweating.

Joe – I like being able to walk to gigs. We’ve probably played like ten different places where we walk half a mile to play a show. And I think the camaraderie in the music scene is pretty fun.

Can you tell me why The Michigan Roots Jamboree is something you guys really look forward to?

Bill – It’s one mile from my new house!

Joe – I like that they’re trying to build up a marquee Michigan festival, and it’s basically in our backyard. It’s crazy to think that we wouldn’t be playing it when you can basically hear it from most of our front porches. I like the camaraderie of it. I’m looking forward to this year’s lineup – I think it’s the best lineup they’ve gotten.

Mark – Backstage is a blast too. They have great food and couches in the middle of the field with a tent over it. You don’t get that anywhere else. I feel they’re really trying to take care of the musicians. It’s also got a stage that’s most suited for Joe climbing up the rafters.

Jake – [Joe] did a ten foot leap one year, at least ten feet, from it!

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

Bill – Just that we really appreciate all the people that have come out and danced and sang along and jumped up on stage and played the games. That’s what’s really made this fun to do.

Black Jake and the Carnies will have a CD release show for their new album “Sundry Mayhems” on June 11 at Woodruffs. They will also be playing in the Michigan Roots Jamboree August 5—7. For more information, visit www.blackjakeandthecarnies.com.

About the Author

Tim Adkins
Tim Adkins
Tim is the publisher of iSPY and co-founder of Pakmode Media + Marketing. He's a social, vegetarian geek who recently welcomed a beautiful baby girl into his family. For any questions or suggestions in regards to design, ad sales, web, content or anything at all related to iSPY, Tim's your guy.

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  1. [...] And now for the press section. To get things started, here’s a video we did for iSPY magazine before we took off for Belgium. A nice interview showed up a little while later. [...]

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