"People were either really into it and they would come up to the front or they were, 'Get the fuck out!'" - Interviews - Soundblab

"People were either really into it and they would come up to the front or they were, 'Get the fuck out!'"

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

Multi-instrumentalist and techno-polymath Juffage, AKA Jeff T Smith, has been making music and putting on shows which are utterly unique for a while now. Mixing Nick Drake folk with Radiohead-style electronic experimentation, the Chicago-born, Leeds, UK, based beardy man and general nice guy has also managed to bring his sounds into the live arena in a way which borders on performance art without once coming across like a massive arse-head-insertion enthusiast. Some achievement.   

Having staged a fascinating, groundbreaking set at Leeds’ superb Left Bank venue last year (it’s a deconsecrated church. A couple of years ago I DJed at a humanist/pagan wedding there and played ‘Babies’ by Pulp. The sound was breathtaking), Juffage is back with new songs, a new direction and a single taken from that gig. He talks to Soundblab about solo man syndrome, classic pop songs, and why 2005 is where it’s at.

You play everything yourself. What instruments are you playing on the songs you’re recording now?

Drums, guitar, bass, piano, synths, noisy stuff, computer programming.

I remember when I saw you live in 2010. You were supporting Bear in Heaven and you were looping stuff, and then drumming, and looping that. And then you started carrying the –

Boom-boxes around.

Yeah! And it was really amazing. How did that evolve? Did you start doing that live first?

No, it was recording first. But then after I started doing that, I ended up with songs I never bothered recording and I don’t know if I ever will, because they seem to work better as performance pieces.

I’m doing some shows now, I did a couple last weekend actually, my first shows back since the Sonic Cauldron thing. That’s just guitar, pedals and singing. I don’t know if I’ll ever not go back to doing the whole loop-based thing, but I can do better now with less. I’m really into some of these new songs I’ve written but they’re more song-based so they don’t really work as building-up compositions because they have too many changes.

I’m recording this stuff now. I have so many songs so I just wanna get them down. I think I’ll probably have 15 songs before I really know what’s going on the album. I’ve been recording drums, I’ve already got the guitar and singing parts written. It’s based around that. Instead of a million instruments, I’m going for more actual songs, I guess.

Have you played with a band in the past?

I’ve been in quite a few bands but not since I moved here. Back in high school and college, I was in loads of bands. I started playing drums in bands. The last band I was in, at university, we were pretty serious. We all kind of did everything. I did mainly guitar and bass. We had a couple of tracks with double drum kits, so I would play drums with another guy, and the drummer would play piano, and another guy playing guitar and synths, and another playing bass and viola.

It was more the songwriting part for me in that band but then I just… Wanted to keep playing but (laughs) didn’t have anyone to play with when I moved so…

Do you think you’ll ever go back to having a band?

Yeah, definitely, but I’m not sure in what format. It would be interesting to see some of these new songs played more in the way that I’m going to record them. I’ve always wanted to see some of my older songs played with a full band, kind of like the way that they are on the record. I’ve thought about it a bit, and the way it would have to work would be two drummers, three guitars, and some other person to do keys and sampling and crap. That would be the bare minimum!

I always think that’s why I never have a band. It would be a lot of work to teach people stuff I wrote, and then probably recorded and forgot how to play. That’s time I could be spending making new music.

That’s why (when people ask) “Why is your new record not going to come out for a while?” Well, I have to book all the shows, I have to record everything. I guess I hold pretty high standards for myself so I don’t want to rush. I’m sure if I really wanted to put out a record I could do it within this year but I want start more documenting the songs that are in my brain and getting them done, and then figure out what I want to do.

I guess if it’s your own solo thing you can have that luxury, but then people start to wonder if you’re, like, dead or what happened.

You seem to make strengths out of limitations.

I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with my new set which I’ve only done a couple of shows with so far. It’s guitar and singing, and some peddles, but there’s no looping in it. A couple of small amps. I’m trying to make more textured droning and stuff so it still sounds really fat, you’re still filling up the space, but not having to reply in looping.

When I saw you, I thought you were the first person doing that kind of thing where it was really successful. Other guys I’d seen doing loops and stuff were just really into their own thing.

I try to make it interactive. That’s the whole concept behind the boom-boxes. It’s funny, people are gigs are often really standoffish. It’s definitely a UK thing. People purposely crowd the back half of the venue and they don’t really come forward. Sometimes I’ll be like, “Hey, does anyone have any questions”, and everyone’s like, “What? He’s addressing me? This isn’t a two way conversation!”

Does anyone ever ask questions?

Yeah, sometimes but you’d be surprised by how surprised people are. I like that, when the audience is almost performing. They’re part of the process. That’s what makes each show kind of original. I’m mean, going to a show and playing is almost like clocking in and doing your job.

What reaction are you looking for?

Oh, nothing really, but the reaction that I normally had gotten was either people were really into it or extreme hatred (laughs). It could be an issue with this newer set because sometimes you go and see a guitar player and they’re often background-y and they get talked over. It’s actually pretty heart-breaking, but before, the set was so loud, people were either really into it and they would come up to the front or they were, “Get the fuck out” (laughs).

One thing I liked about that was even if people hated it, they’re not going to forget. That’s the issue the guitar-based set. I think it’s still quite different from a lot of guitar-based sets, but it doesn’t have that extreme… Some people, I think that really rubbed them the wrong way.

That’s not the reason I’m not doing it now. I think if I was going to play sets like that, I’d be playing the same songs. I don’t have any new songs in that style. I want to play new music. I want to keep it interesting for myself or there’s no point, really.

Why are your new songs more songwriting-based?

It’s mainly just that I’m getting older. The music that I really appreciate is less technically crazy or really densely layered. Semicircle, most of the songs had a hundred instruments on them. The music that I really enjoy is just really good, catchy tunes that are still unpredictable. They have something that grabs you but in essence they’re just a good melody, good pop songs.

There’s a timeless quality to that kind of stuff too. If you can write a catchy tune which doesn’t sound like something else then you’ve really got a gem. Some of the best pop songs are old catchy rock tunes. Anyone can play them and they would still be good. It’s more about the quality of the song then the musician.

There’s a lot of electronic stuff or post-rock stuff and it’s like, no one can just take that and cover it. Some of the best music, I think, is written by people who just started playing. You don’t have to be good at your instrument to write a good song. It’s more about the idea.

So I’m just trying to be a good songwriter now. I’m still really stretching but sometimes I’m writing and the songs could still be really long, like 10 minutes, but I feel like it’s really catchy still. I dunno, I mean… What was the question again? Sorry.

Why your music has become more songwriting-based.

I don’t really know. Some people are like, “Oh, you’re doing your acoustic set”, but it’s not an acoustic guitar. It’s a regular guitar. I found myself in the last couple of years playing guitar a lot more, and being more influenced by melodies than maybe I was in the past. I still really love drums though. This album is definitely going to have some really intense drumming on it.

What was the first instrument you started playing?

Piano.

Do you still play that?

Yeah, quite a bit. But drums and guitar are my main stuff lately, just because of finishing the songs, working out the drum parts, recording drums. I’ve really been playing drums a lot lately. I’ve got stupid callouses everywhere.

I guess I picked up drums after (piano), and then bass and then guitar. I play clarinet too. Clarinet’s fun.

Do different instruments fulfil different functions for you? Like, do you play one to relax and then one’s more functional for your songs?

I guess each instrument can have its own relaxing effect but I wouldn’t say anything is inherently relaxing. You can get sucked into songwriting or playing and it’s relaxing but not in the way that watching a movie is.

Drums are not relaxing physically but I think I find it the most therapeutic, because I have to think the least. Drums, for me, are way more subconscious. I just think of beats and just play them. I don’t have to think about what I’m playing. Whereas with guitar, I’ll start with a melody and then it like OK, how do I play this?

Drumming can be physically really demanding. I like to fill in every little space in the beat. And it evolves over time. I’ve been practicing drums for a couple of weeks for songs I’m going to record, and I just record them in Pro Tools and play them back through an amp and drum over them. I must have played them a hundred times. Every few days, I’ll go back and play the same songs for about an hour. I feel like it’s always changing and evolving, little beats change, but I’m never thinking about it. It just kind of happens.

Do you have a least favourite instrument which you kind of dread when you get to it?

(Laughs) No…

Would that be like picking a least favourite child?

I think anything that I can’t play well, I never really play them so it’s not a problem! (laughs) Like, I wish I could play cello or brass. I can’t play trumpet or French horn. There are some instrument that I’d like to play but every time I’ve picked one up I can’t really get a pleasant tone.

I’d quite like to learn musical saw actually, I think that would be fun. You can get some cool melodies. I really like that instrument.

Tell me about the recent single, ‘Last Few True’. It’s a collaboration, isn’t it?

A year ago to the day it came out, I did a concert at Left Bank (in Leeds). These are two tracks from that concert. It was insane, it was so much work. Maybe that’s another reason I don’t have another album out. It was me, Tom from Vessels, Katie from Sky Larkin and Jen from Invisible Cities. They were all brand new songs that I’d just finished. I had to teach all the parts to the other three people.

I mainly played the main guitar stuff; Katie played synths, and organ, and guitar and drums; Tom played guitar and bass; Jen played synth and viola. It was crazy ambitious, and I also wrote a computer program for it that took a year. Every instrument on stage and the vocals, they were going through my computer and a Max/MSP patch that I built. The whole audience of the Left Bank was surrounded by PA speakers. Every song had its own different patch.

It took a week to set up. It was a hundred per cent DIY. I didn’t have anyone helping me out except for the people involved. I had big help from Lee from Vessels, he was helping me set up the Pas, fix broken speakers, and we managed to put it all together. I think it turn out really well.

This single is one track Katie sung on and the other track is the first track which is an instrumental piece which is based primarily on guitar loops that I was doing, with droning E-bow and synths over the top of that. That was big time using the spacialisation (sic). These are stereo mixes, so you’re kind of missing out on that aspect of it, unfortunately, but the songs are still totally intact. We’re gonna do some stuff for the album; Katie’s gonna do singing on some tracks.

What are your favourite places to play?

The Brudenell (Social Club, Leeds). That’s the best venue in the UK. Other places… No disrespect to the UK, but I’ve always liked playing Europe more. I love Italy and the Netherlands actually. I’ve always had good shows there and they love me there for some reason, I don’t know why. I really like France.

Are the crowds more responsive there?

I think so. It’s a massive generalisation, but they’re more open. They seem like they go to shows to see music. I think a lot of times here, even when it’s not a free show, you hear loads of talking or dicking around. They’re just looking at their phones. It’s like, you just paid, like, £10 to get in here, do you not care what’s going on? Maybe they’re just a bit more respectful of music and that seems to correlate with record sales there too.

I don’t think it’s necessarily anyone’s fault, it’s just in the UK there are so many fucking bands. Even when something really good is happening right in front of someone’s face, I don’t think people realise cos they’re too wrapped up in their own universe. The internet is ruining it for people. Some of my favourite music existed way before the internet ever happened. It’s killing people’s attention spans. I have ADD anyway (laughs).

The internet is possibly killing people’s ability to concentrate on music because they’re too busy on social media promoting their own shit. There’s no real artists anymore. They’re too image-focussed, which you have to be I think.

A lot of musicians are having to do everything themselves.

Even when they’re not having to do everything themselves, they’re having to play a huge part in how releases are promoted. There’s so many bands, you’re just like one little drop in this sea of noise. Even bigger bands are like that. No one’s selling record like they did 20 years ago.

I think it’s cool that music is massively more available. You can just go online and find my stuff and listen to it. But also, maybe that mass availability is actually hurting people. I think it goes through phases: I think the internet really helped me a lot booking my first tour back in 2008. It was really ambitious and I booked the whole thing myself, messaging people on MySpace and shit, and it was, like, six months. I played everywhere.

I think at that time, it was easy to reach out, it was a newer thing. It’s like when Napster first came out, you know? You were caught up in the initial buzz of the whole thing. Now it’s like everyone has a Facebook page for their everything. For their dog.

And their dog’s got 2,000 likes. Are you still working as a recording engineer?

A little bit. If anyone wants me to record their band, I will definitely do it. I’m not really looking for bands. I guess I never really was to begin with, I just kind of lucked-out and recorded some good ones. That’s how I met the guys from Bearfoot Beware. I think they’re really awesome and we’re pretty good friends now.

I would happily record some bands but it’s like the solo guy syndrome. I have to do everything else. But I love recording, it’s so much fun. That’s how Juffage started.

How did the name come about?

I don’t really know. I think I just wrote it on a CD that burned for someone, my first things that I made when I was about 13. It was, like, really bad techno. I’ve never bothered to change it because if you’re a solo guy you can’t really break up with yourself. Also, I don’t think it’s a very good name (laughs) but I’m not going to get mistaken for anyone.

Oh, I don’t know… What does a band name really mean? Are there any good band names?

I have a theory that all the good ones are gone now. There’s only a finite amount of names and combinations.

Presumably you want the band name to be indicative of the musical content. Juffage is pretty vague, it doesn’t make you think of any genre so I kind of like that.

When you think about The Beatles, it’s just a shit pun really.

It’s not a very good name. I never really thought about it. Look at where they got. Album names are probably more important than a band name. It’s more like naming a thing that you’ve created whereas naming a band or a solo project, it’s never done so how do you really name that?

Any other projects you’re working on?

I might do some remixes. I did one that was really fun but it took me a long time. It was for Three Trapped Tigers. Check out the remix, it’s crazy. It’s really weird. They’re cool guys, I’ve played with them a few times. Their drummer is bonkers, he’s amazing.

I saw you a few years ago at the same festival as them. You were getting quite annoyed with people in the audience talking, I thought legitimately. There were some dicks.

I try not to be like that guy but…

It’s good to actually say something.

Really? I never encountered that before because the set was so loud and abrasive, it drowned out everything. I think I need to work on trying to draw people in a bit more. That whole set was more like being absorbed in your own universe.

If you could go back in time to a particular musical era, which one would you choose?

Oh, God… I kind of like where we’re at now because for me, as a solo guy… I mean, I make minimum wage, so it’s not like I can spend it on a ton of music gear but I feel like with what I’ve got, I can make pretty good recordings. Some people have even more gear than me and they make shit recordings.

That’s the kind of Tape Op magazine’s philosophy and it’s my approach to recording. You’re never going to make a super-polished record like Metallica or Christina Aguilera. But if you have an ear and decent gear you can make a really good-sounding record still and for cheap.

I like that, I like peddles and technology, Max/MSP programming and all that, and that’s all within the last 10 years. Maybe I’d go back to, like, 2005. That was the tip of the iceberg, I guess. Maybe musicians were a bit more naïve. People weren’t so image-conscious.

Technology was almost as readily available as it is today but it wasn’t so in-the-box. It’s so easy now, it’s almost like a video game. Everyone calls themselves a ‘producer’ now because they make beats. That’s not what a producer is, it’s someone who engineered on records for decades and then graduated to such high esteem that they could just sit on the couch and just tell people to make the bridge shorter and get paid 10 grand a day for it, or add some horns in. “Oh, I don’t that line. Change that word.” That would be a producer’s real role, not some guy with Fruity Loops in his mom’s basement.

How do you think your music will progress?

I’ve thought about this. A lot of bands are seen by the media to evolve by being all guitar-y and then going all Radiohead and going all synth-y and experimental. But in a way, I’m almost going the opposite way. I wanna play guitar and write good songs and not stare at computer screens so much.

I still feel it’s a serious progression, artistically, and I feel like it’s better, but I’m doing it backwards. I’ve thought about how it’ll be perceived but I don’t really care.

Maybe you should just keep evolving to become more atavistic.

Maybe I’ll just, like, make a baroque album. It’ll sound like Bach or something.

And then you can just…

Pound a rock with a stick.

That would be brilliant actually. 

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