|Jesse Mosher and Spike Polite of Sewage
If memory serves I first saw you performing with the New York punk band Sewage at 2015’s Tompkins Square Riot 27th Anniversary. Was this your first performance with Sewage? Are you and frontman Spike Polite longtime friends?
I met Spike early in 2014. I got him an acoustic set with a few bands at the now defunct Ding Dong Lounge at 106 and Columbus in NYC. I used to do a lot of shows and a few DJ nights there. Over the past few years I must have painted with Sewage a dozen times. The Knitting Factory, Hank’s Saloon, last New Year’s at Lucky 13 in Brooklyn. I think twice at Tompkins with Sewage. Just last month we did two shows together in Italy and Slovenia. Spike is the real deal. We have a lot of good hangouts over the past few years. He's really inspiring and always pushing himself. He's a brother for sure. He was the last person I saw before I moved to France in January.
I noticed NYC punk is still thriving despite the forced evictions of clubs in the 2000s and 2010s. Did you expect so many closings would happen when Giuliani began his Quality of Life agenda? How do you account for the scene continuing?
I didn't live in New York during the Giuliani era. I was in San Francisco and Boston at the time. As far as having a scene endure, a lot if it is up to the brave souls who book shows and turn warehouses, basements, etc into venues. It's an essential part of any scene that a few people continue the underground venues. I had the Rock Loft in San Francisco in 2012 and Do You Wanna Dance in Gerritsen Beach Brooklyn for four months in 2013. Some kids who played at both clubs went on to host house shows and warehouse shows, which continues the opportunities to have bands develop relationships, communities, and groups. Another element that has helped the New York scene endure is touring. New York bands are exposed to different styles as they tour Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America. Those Rock N Roll scenes are much younger, and have real contributions to make to the genre. Likewise in New York you are lucky enough to be a magnet for these same bands from around the world who play in New York all the time. The first 30-40 years of a country’s Rock N Roll scene are its most vital, and encountering those bands is inspiring.
In what ways have U.S. punk from the 1970s to the 2010s been vital? On the same idea, if you watched Patti Smith’s final CBGB appearance online, what are your thoughts on her encouraging artists to continue being original and creative?
Aah those first years, the greatest in any art movement. I would say most of the original aspects of Punk revealed themselves in the 1970s to the 2010s. It started with the Velvet Underground, Stooges, New York Dolls and Patti Smith, got codified by the Ramones, Sex Pistols etc. Then it got an identity with Black Flag, NoFX etc. in the 1980s. The 1990s were the first commercial breakthroughs with Green Day, Rancid and Offspring, but the new ground was being broken more by Sublime and Nirvana. With the rise of Goner and Burger Records and the international bands, I think it's more original and diverse than ever but still underground. It's encouraging to hear The Mean Jeans, Surfer Blood, or Fidlar's music used in films and TV. I think the Ramones’ Budweiser ad broke that open for punk bands to have their songs used commercially. That's the best paydays for music these days.
The first years are the most vital because of intent and commitment. The intention and commitment of early or outside contributors has a purity that is impossible to match as time goes on. Think of it this way, literally millions of musicians worldwide can play the difficult music of Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy, but none can write its equal today. After the original era, art becomes academic in one way or another. The same is true of surrealism, jazz and other forms that have been well explored by this point. As long as there are talented misfits and poor kids there will be evolving punk rock. In my opinion it will turn into an academic form when it becomes more about fashion and too many established rules. In that way the future of hardcore, Oi, and Ramonescore bands are limited in their potential growth because they rely too much on established ideas. I think that punk rock emerging from the Burger and Goner scenes, Italy, Arabic communities, Africa, Indonesia, Wales and Japan has a lot of potential for growth, and few established norms.
Patti Smith is a great philosopher and giver of advice. She and Iggy are some of the oldest, most original and influential American artists. Listen to what they have to say; it's mind-expanding and important to take advantage of their experience. Always listen to your elders. Making art is important for personal and societal reasons. For 99% of people it is entertaining to others and personally important, gratifying. But even more important is a few hundred people in each era push the limits of creativity and create new forms. Without that it's all academic exercise and society is eventually doomed. The talent and originality is there but the world’s attention is focused on nostalgia and perfection instead of innovation. I know what I'm doing is a new form of painting and performance that will eventually be recognized, I just hope I'm alive to see it happen. Either way it's fun to be the first and only person with a new fleshed out concept. If a thousand people copied me today, I'm thirty years down the path of developing this form and even if they followed my path exactly, I would be gone before they could catch me, too fast, too far, too long a road, too many dead mentors.
Why do you think original statements in music and fashion are imitated and copied that much?
I think those originals get copied more often because they are really good. Also being an original doesn't lend itself to perfection. There's a lot of unfinished ideas that are later perfected by others. Perfected ideas have less wiggle room to improvise on and therefore, are cited less as influences than some rawer ideas. I heard someone say they liked the pure music with the mistakes and all because the bravery of artists who push performing to the breaking point. Maybe it's the bravery to go their own way that's inspiring.
How many times have you appeared at punk shows in Tompkins Square Park?
I think I've done four or five shows at Tompkins Square Park. Three of four days at the Riot Anniversary shows and one or two other times at the same spot. Once was with A New Bug from Long Island, once with Sewage and a few times with Hammerbrain, Gas Wild and whoever else was playing. I first heard about the show from Spike Polite who invited me down to paint in 2015.
What were you doing in Boston and how long were you there? What was your involvement in the industry at that time?
I was in Boston in 2000 and 2001. I was working at a lamp restoring shop and had a studio where I made serigraphed screen prints. I was printing without a press and changing the colors constantly to make original work with the prints instead of reproducing ideas. I sold the prints at shows, festivals and through promoters for large shows with Beck, BB King and others. I wasn't involved in punk rock or punk rock scenes until 2009 at the earliest. I'm an artist who is drawn to work with other artists, musicians. I work in phases, so when I'm done with an idea, city, and band I just move on. I've worked with a lot of artists in a lot of scenes but never belonged to any. I always tried to make it clear when I was working with CJ Ramone, The Adolescents, or now The Jabbers, that punk rock was their thing, I'm just a committed artist learning from masters not to copy their thing but do my own thing. I'm not nor do I have any intention of being a musician. My thing is my own, like Picasso owned cubism, Jack Kerouac with his style or the way Lester Young owned improvisational jazz. I've always sought out the greats and originals for guidance and wisdom but never wanted to be a part of any scene or do what anyone else was doing. What I know about local music in Boston is there are way too many bands for the few clubs they have. I used to go to the Middleast, Harper's Ferry, the Paradise and the Orpheum Theater when I lived there, mostly to see national acts and touring bands.
What was the San Francisco scene like when you were running Rock Loft? Did you have a criteria for booking bands?
San Francisco was really great in the past, I think it peaked in 2011. The new influential bands from there are The OCs, Hunx and his Punks, Ty Deal, Shannon and the Clams, and No Bunny. They are punk in a way but original. The scene around Burger Records has been described as "what happened to Rock N Roll "by the late great Kim Rowley. The Knockout, the Hemlock, Parkside are the spots. For a while there everyone creative was meeting up at a place called the Revolution Cafe. Gentrification really put a beating on the local Rock N Roll scene, and all the acts I mentioned above are international touring bands now. In 2011 you could see them with a crowd of 50-100 people.
At my club I booked whoever to keep it mixed. No rap or electronica if I could help it. We had some Canadian bands but mostly USA bands at the Rock Loft. I like a mix, so acoustic, singer song writer, psychedelic rock, country, blues, classic punk, HC, surf, classic guitar driven rock, etc. Always the best parties when I had a mixed bill. I played oldies and surf rock in between sets, usually three to four bands. I let underagers drink, smoke cigs or weed, whatever. It went well, I only had to toss one person out of close to 1600 who came to shows there and it was a coworker of mine. We never sold beer. People just bring a reasonable amount of alcohol I found if you advertise BYOB. I made a poster for the front door, neighborhood, and advertised at the Green Tortoise hostel cross the street, which would draw 20 international people every time. Usually forty to eighty people came. We were only open Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, because those were dead nights for music in SF usually, and the techno club underneath us was closed.
Why did you decide to move to Brooklyn in 2013? How many bands did you book to appear at Do You Wanna Dance?
I decided to move to Brooklyn in 2013 for a change. I was tired of SF, had been working with CJ Ramone for a few years and wanted to do more with him. I also wanted to work with as many friends of Johnny Thunders as I could. I had just finished a documentary I filmed in Orange County about the making of CJs first solo record, Reconquista. I wanted to do an underground club in Brooklyn, and CJ helped me get it off the ground by supplying guitar and bass amps for the backline and playing the opening show where we previewed the film, CJ Ramone King Cobra The Making Of Reconquista. It was fun while it lasted but I lost a lot of money on it. We did 25 shows, about 100 bands played there. I'm done with doing a club now, it's out of my system. Now I'm all about pushing my personal limits as a performer, filming everything and doing interviews, and TV. The Damned (Dave and Captain Sensible) really took a shine to what I’m doing when I did a tour with them and CJ in CA in 2015. After a few show run I and The Captain went out to eat in SF. He gave me a great piece of advice that I'm following to this day. "Work with as many different people as you can." That's what I'm all about these days as I'm preparing for the next phase of this adventure, maybe the last untried idea in Rock and Roll performance, which I'm starting the first solo performances of next month here in France. One original idea is not enough, you must build many on top of each other to really be original, and this next one is a doozy.
How involved were you in the making of The Making Of Reconquista? What other collaborations were you doing with CJ Ramone?
I was along for the recording of Reconquista to film and help out. Me and Paul MacKay filmed 65 hours of footage over three weeks on two cameras. We had a 1080p Sony Handicam and an early 720p sports camera of CJ’s. We filmed 65 hours of footage or rehearsals, tracking and about ten special guests. It took about 500 hours to edit, just me and Paul with another 50 hours at least of editing by CJ and Paul. Paul and I edited up a 50 minute film; CJ and Paul edited it to a 22 minute version which was released as a double CD/DVD first printing of the record. I think 5000 were made and sold, but I'm not sure. Paul and I also did runs for meals, dropped musicians off at the airport, made coffee, ran errands etc. We gave Billy Zoom a memorable ride home, and talked about Willie Nelson. It was a great experience painting two days of Rehearsals with Jose Medeles, Steve Soto and CJ. The film and trailer are up on Youtube.
I collaborated on some paintings with CJ in 2014. We made up maybe fourteen skateboard decks to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Ramones in 2014. We shot them with an SKS and a Shotgun making 12 gauge and 7.62mm holes in them. We used an old stage shoe of CJ’s to make American flags on the decks. They looked great and we sold about ten in 2014-15.
At various times I sold and consigned his records in NYC record shops, helped him pack and mail records and merch from the crowdfunding for Reconquista and did various building projects at his house. Lots of cool discussions and laughs over the years, whether it was tour, work or just hanging out. They don't make rockers like that anymore. CJ is one of the last legit rock stars, from when musicians were bad assed.
When performing with Sewage and other bands, do you bring your own artwork onstage?
I've been making paintings with bands since 2005. I have made about 2,000 since then at 783 shows. I usually perform with between one to five bands or sets a night so it's over 2,500 bands now. Punk Rock is how I would define over half of the bands, but Blues, jazz, country Bluegrass, psychedelic, Reggae, classic Rock bands are the rest. No electronic or Rap groups. I either start and finish paintings in Black and White, or begin them in soundcheck, or continue paintings I started with other bands at other shows. After five minutes the paintings are identifiable, but are really more like drawings. The depth required of a painting takes many more thin layers. A finished painting for me can have up to thirty layers in certain parts. It's necessary to fully layer up the paintings to sell, or exhibit them in art shows after. What I'm doing in performance is following the beat and rhythm of the instruments with the brush and my body language, even in the motions that are used to pick up more paint from my palette (a pilot’s aluminum flight case that I have used for the last 400 shows). My paintings are based on photos, or video stills, but I don't look at the photos hardly ever on stage so each painting takes on an aspect of self-portraiture, to the extent it doesn't look like the subject. All paintings are constructed of found Plywood or screwed together fragments of wood I find in the immediate vicinity of where I live. The paint is white wood primer, which I find or buy by the gallon. The black paint is a mix of exterior enamel (the kind you find on metal railings) water based, mixed with some ingredients to thicken it and make it dry faster. I have about 10¢ of materials into each finished painting, and have reused several tons of wood that would have ended up in the landfill. I have made 2,591 paintings so far. (I have kept written records for the last sixteen years so my numbers on this are good).
Who are some of the personalities you have drawn portraits of? What is your criterion for choosing likenesses of artists?
I have made about 700 different portraits. Many of Jesse James, Chuck Berry, Dee Dee Ramone, CJ Ramone, Johnny Ramone, Johnny Thunders, Howlin Wolf, Amy Winehouse, John Stabb, Chief Red Cloud, GG Allin, Link Stay, Jerry Garcia, Lightning Hopkins, Graham Parsons, Ryan Adams, Sid Vicious, Dave Vanian, Johnny Cash, Joan Jett, Guitar Wolf, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Pigpen, too many to list. Maybe I've only painted 400 one time.
Describe the work you and the Jabbers have been doing together. How did you meet them and how familiar have you become of their history as GG Allin’s backup band?
I grew up hearing about GG and the Jabbers; he was an underground legend in New England. I had a friend Paul that used to go see him, Paul brought me to my first show, Buddy Guy in 1991. He told me about them then.
I met Chris Lamy (guitar 1980-84 and the reunited Jabbers since 2000) first at a CJ Ramone/Shonen Knife show in Boston at the Middleast in June 2015. It was the last show of an 18(?) show tour that I painted, sold merch, roadied and drove on. I was really on fire painting that night. Warren, the Ramones Crew guy/Marky's old tour manager, brought him to the show. We talked and hit it off and he invited me to paint at the GG Allin birthday bash in August. I did a rehearsal with them in mid-August in New Hampshire that was really a top experience for me. We played in a garage for two full sets of 45 minutes. No breaks between songs. The band plays in a circle with the singer Wimpy (the original Queers singer) and sometimes me in the center. The energy in the center of the room was amazing, and the feel was only comparable to the two Iggy and The Stooges shows I've painted at. It's heavy and really jams at high intensity. I did the show at the Shaskeen Pub in Manchester with the Jabbers two weeks later and it was incredible. I painted in front of Chris Lamy on a platform and blocked people who were jumping on the stage from knocking his mic into his teeth. Very wild amazing show. I got knocked over three times standing on stage. I really regret not filming it. I filmed the end of another private show we had in New Hampshire in August 2016. It's on YouTube and you can see the circle formation in full effect.
I visit the band when I can. A few times a year I go and stay with Michael O'Donnell (drums 80s, 2000-now) or Chris Lamy. Chris is coming to visit me in France next month, and I will see the rest of the band in November or December in New Hampshire. I have tons of respect for Alan, Michael Chris, Harlan and Wimpy, who I know, and the amazing Rob Basso who I only know through Facebook. I consider the Jabbers to be like family.
Chris Lamy made my logo for me (he is a talented Graphic Artist for many years now in Portland, Maine) and I've worked at Michael O'Donnell's Family Farm stand in Exeter, New Hampshire. I'm helping them connect to a record label in Italy to put out some records, and tour with them when they come to Europe in the future. They are my favorite American band these days.
Talk about the shows you did with Sewage in Italy and Slovenia. Any particularly memorable experiences over there?
It was a great adventure with Spike. I did three shows on that run, two with Spike in Udine, Italy and Adjovcena, Slovenia. The show in Udine was late; maybe 2:30 am. I kicked a beer all over some fashion punk kids while Sewage was covering "Bite It You Scum" [GG Allin]. It was in a hot tent after thirteen hardcore bands, so it was a smaller crowd then the peak. Maybe a hundred people were still standing. Some kids jumped onstage and flopped around at one point. I filmed some and there was a festival videographer who filmed it all and it's up on YouTube. I remember the Wailers and Gun Club had played the festival in past years from the old posters, because we mostly hung out in the AC backstage area. We had a nice lunch the next day with the festival organizers and other bands. It was just over the border into Slovenia, but there was no border checkpoint, because Italy and Slovenia are both in the E.U. We swam after. The Italian Sewage (drums, bass, guitar) were cool kids. The drummer Lorenzo was like a naturally coked up squirrel, entertaining. The show in Adjovcena was smaller but had a great sound. It was a club called Baza. They treated us really good there. The first band was good I remember. Rock bands from Yugoslavia are on a high level of intensity and power from the first to last note. MDC played there a few weeks later on their European tour, but we were the first American band there I think.
Discuss your move to France and your experiences there since you settled in.
I've had my sights set on France and Europe for a long time. I got my passport in 2011 to go to Colombia with CJ Ramone for shows in Medellin and Cali, but first used it to go to France in 2015. My wife is French but was illegal in the US from 2011-2014. We went back to see her family and do a twenty date tour in March, April and May 2015. I performed for over 5,000 people and got great press and treatment. I went back two more times for 32 shows that year. It would have been 40 shows but I fell out on the third tour and had to cancel dates with Kepi Ghoulie and Chixdiggit as I was in the hospital. I owe my life to France as I was able to pay cash for two operations that would have cost fifty times more in the US. Long story short I almost died and had to stay in bed 95% of the time for ten months. I'm about fifty shows into my comeback now, have gotten my old chops back and continue to improve on my pre-surgery performances.
Last October with the political and social situations deteriorating in the states, we got one way tickets to France. The price went up five times overnight after the election. My wife was three months pregnant at the time; the anti-immigrant rhetoric was really messing with her and the baby's health. We were planning on moving to France in a year or two but whoever won the election, there was too much negativity around illegal immigrants, liberals, Intellectuals and other groups for it to be worth staying. Best decision I've made.
We got here in January, but I had to go back to New York in March. So many people from NYC were leaving for France that the French consulate had to start a waiting list four months long for a long stay visa, so I had to come back in March. It's not on the news but many people are leaving America now. Over here they are calling it The American Exodus. Mostly families, scientists, artists, intellectuals, professors.
My beautiful daughter Ann Mosher was born on May 8th, V-E day they call it the U.S. She was a little small at first but is thriving here now, a lover of music and her new world. My whole family has health care (for the first time since the 1990s for me). We got a nice bonus from the French government for the baby's birth, paid maternity, and I'm in the process of registering as an artist for the government of France, which has many benefits and is a status that doesn't exist in the States. The quality of life here is high, from good to vacation time etc. Rent is 8% of what I was paying to live in an unheated basement in Bushwick. I highly recommend it.
In your view does Trump’s presidency have to do with so many people relocating from the U.S. to France? Why do you think it’s not being reported on the news over here?
I think a lot of people with the connections, or know-how to make it in other countries are leaving. There's an open appeal from The French government for American, scientists, artists and intellectuals to move to France. America is just not very supportive to the arts, and Sciences under Trump. If you want to you can always find a way to move to another country. I would guess it's not on the news because the U.S. never had an exodus problem before and it doesn't want the bad press about it. Internationally the narrative about what's going on in the world is different than the narrative of the world as described in TV news in America. It's a more complex and information heavy news/reality than the perspective that I was told when I lived in the states. You have to know more than ever to understand the world today, but there are many simplistic explanations (propaganda) being pushed on people who don't have the time to do the research to understand the bigger issues.
Is there a punk scene in France as well as other scenes where you have been able to pursue your art?
The punk scene in France has all the traditional punk subgroups represented, but like most of Europe the underground scene is strongly anti-Fascist, with many of the shows happening in Squats, CPA squats and partisan strongholds etc. I did a show with some New York Hardcore style French bands in Grenoble a few weeks ago with lots of SHARPs and Antifa people there. A modern Garage Rock/Punk scene is maybe bigger in France, but I haven't toured around France enough to tell. Bands like Fuzzy Vox from Paris are great examples of this scene. I've had the most success with bands from Northern Italy I think. I've done almost forty shows there the last three years, and am constantly inspired by bands from Milan, Brescia, Parma, Bologna, Piacenza etc. Ernest's Liver, Riccobellis, Latte+, Disco Monstro, Merry Widow, Impossibli, Snipers, Mighty Goose, Chromosomes, Yonic South, CGB, Ononda, the Island of Wales, and many, many other bands. Painting has also been epic at shows in Slovenia, Bosnia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Wales over the past few years. Wales in particular has really original bands like Not Since The Accident, Gung Ho, 2 Sick Monkeys, Pizza Tramps and Fish Face. I think Wales is isolated enough that the bands have developed to be more original, with their own pressures and standards. In all the slightly out of the way or forgotten places, punk is thriving.
Considering all the punk scenes you have visited worldwide, did you ever expect it to become as wide spread as it is today? In what ways have you noticed those scenes are similar and different?
Yeah I always figured it would last. It has an apocalyptic vibe to it that's real popular worldwide. Punk has a connection to societies in decline; it's like a primal scream of a group outside the mainstream, with cheap, worn, used gear and aggressive energy. As long as there are those people in the world there will be punk music.
Are there scenes in other countries you want to visit, such as Africa and some Muslim countries?
There are a lot of places I want to go and paint with bands. Asia in general fascinates me, as far as bands, Indonesia, and the Philippines are newer scenes, but Cambodia and Vietnam have had rock n roll since the 1960s. Japan is the biggest scene for sure.
I have investigated a little about touring in Africa, but aside from the 1970s-80s punk scene around Durban South Africa, I haven't heard of much. Lots of Hendrix inspired music coming out of Mali; Tinarawen is the biggest touring band.
Iran has some great bands I've heard, and there is a yearly international blues/Rock Fest in Lebanon, where Lord Bishop plays.
There's a lot I don't know about eastern European punk rock. What I've heard out of Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Croatia in particular are tops. The compilation Bombardje New York (Bombarding NY) has all the classic 80-90s bands on there, pure stuff. I will be doing more shows this year in the Balkans, Czech Rep, Poland, Germany, Wales, Italy, and France of course, with two big European tours with American groups in the works for March, April of next year. With my solo shows, I will continue exploring smaller places like Guernsey, Wight, Man, Isles, Sardinia, Corsica, Iceland, and the former Soviet Republic over the next few years. I hope to get to all the countries of Europe over the next five years.
I haven't seen too many Muslim or Gypsy kids in punk bands, but I see teenage Muslim girls doing a punk rock look a lot. It seems like the generation of Muslim girls in particular are rebelling in a punk direction. Leather jackets, I saw a girl in my neighborhood with a CBGB miniskirt and a hijab. I think it's a little early for the bands to come out of this trend, but I'm sure there already started practicing.
Are there new punk bands based in the U.S. you have discovered you would help to endorse for the readers?
I haven't been in the habit of seeing touring bands from the States as much as I was when I lived in the U.S. Some good touring bands from recent years are The Mean Jeans, Audacity, King Kahn and BBQ, Radio Moscow, Ferocious Few, Slam Dunk (Canada). When I lived in Brooklyn, I mostly concentrated on painting with local bands, touring or not. Out of close to two hundred shows in NYC, my favorite groups to paint with were The Bowery Boys, Sewage, Felon, King Bee and The Stingers, CJ Ramone, Alouth, Hammerbrain and Johnny Black Band.
Do you prefer performing with bands at large clubs, smaller clubs, outdoor shows or squat parties?
Every club, stage or bar is different. The feeling you get is different. Because I'm video recording everything, I like all of the spots for different reasons. Having no room to move or being trapped in a corner is the worst. It doesn't really matter if I'm on stage, on my own riser stage, in front of the stage or what, just having enough room to move is what's important. Standing on concrete is the most tiring but makes for fast performances. A wooden floor is the least tiring, and probably my favorite. Outdoor is great for the crowds and fresh air. Clubs have a great compressed energy, but are hot and stuffy too. Over a hundred degrees it can be much harder to do the full set without running out of gas at the end. The constant mix of venues is one of the things that keeps it interesting, and keeps the videos different.
Considering all your experience in punk, how do you think it will be remembered decades from now?
Punk will go down as one of the most influential forms of Rock N Roll. I hope people see it as a form of realism, and maybe one of the most honest forms of art of these times. It's the truest and most honest form of art that best captured an era, and was remembered most after. Punk has its roots in the streets and the struggle; as long as that endures it will be a living breathing thing.