Sci-fi music man: An interview with Jack Name

Jack Name hits up The Mill!
Jack Name brings Light Show to The Mill, a rock and roll sci-fi novella starring The Wooly Bullies.

Dent May w/ Jack Name, Teen Daad

The Mill – Monday, Feb. 3 at 9 p.m.

LA-based studio wiz John Webster Johns has something of a storied music career, having dabbled in several bands under a variety of stage names. He tours with White Fence as a guitarist, gets his hands dirty in the studio for the likes of Cass McCombs, and previously split his time between groups such as Flesh Unitard, Charlemaignes and Poworld.

So when Johns announced last year that he’d be releasing a “rock and roll sci-fi novella” album under the moniker “Jack Name,” the more appropriate response might have been, “What took you so long?”

Name released his fantastical debut album, Light Show, on January 21 under the Drag City imprint God? Records, and the finished product is certainly (ahem) something.

“Basically, you have a gang called The Shadows that’s like a harmless gang, sort of like the Little Rascals or The Outsiders minus the knife fights. A good group of kids, you know what I mean?” Name said, later adding that the whole thing takes place on a one-town planet — a sort of interstellar truck stop. “From somewhere off in the dark reaches of the fantasy world comes a gang called the Wooly Bullies … They’re basically a real bad gang, and they evolve into something that gets way out of control. They reach sort of 1984 proportions of power, and that’s the problem. That’s where the rub goes down.”

If you’re expecting a fairly straightforward rock and roll opera in the vein of Rocky Horror or Tommy, Light Show definitely isn’t that. Nor should it be, given Name’s previous work. The album is surreal at times, with Name’s subdued vocals guiding the listener on a fast-paced, seemingly acid-infused journey with soaring guitars and flourishes of laser-beam synth. It’s aural candy for sci-fi nerds.

“It’s hard for me to describe how stuff sounds from the listener’s perspective, but people say that it sounds really hypnotizing and sort of brutal,” Name said. “It’s really loud and basic — almost minimal. It’s a kind of scary electronic rock and roll.”

Name says he has no qualms with writing music about more traditional topics, but the kind of liberty that science fiction provides is a powerful mechanism for creativity and storytelling. This is nothing new for the world of science fiction, of course, which often serves as a sort of metaphor for contemporary issues, but its use in music is too-often overlooked, Name says.

“I don’t want to talk about my relationships and stuff like that in some kind of isolated way,” he said. “For me, [a concept album] is easier because it gives me some direction in what I’m doing and something to think about, so it’s kind of more fun too.”

But don’t be mistaken. Name says that Light Show isn’t a witting attempt to avoid the sort of navel gazing and self-indulgence that’s otherwise commonplace in the world of independent music. In fact, Light Show is an admitted exercise in self-gratification.

“It’s just a different kind of self indulgence,” Name said. “For me, it’s pretty indulgent to just nerd out on this fantasy stuff … There’s an open field of ‘anything is possible and everything’s fair game.’ If you apply that to music, for me, that gets really exciting. Pretty much everything is there to serve the story or the ideas more than the other way around.”

Name’s live show is a more deconstructed version of the album, he says, with an emphasis on “what’s fun” rather than excessive scrutiny over plot points and story articulation. He likens the “story” experience to one better served by headphones in a comfortable listening environment, whereas his live shows offer listeners a new and refreshing way to look at the same material.

“I mean, there’s always more more perspectives or more ways to listen to something, and maybe [the live show] can bring some other qualities out of the subject matter that somebody else wasn’t seeing before,” he said. “I personally like it when things are a little bit surprising.”

Name will join Dent May and Iowa City’s Teen Daad at The Mill on Monday, February 3. The show kicks off at 9 p.m. with an $8 entry charge, which is a damn good deal. Dent May’s addictive hooks paired with Name’s sci-fi quirk should make for an exciting night, and we’ve had pretty great things to say about Teen Daad as well. Check out the official Facebook event page for the latest details.

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