There are two distinct eras to Jandek, an experimental-music project revolving around a Houston, Texas, musician and songwriter who — though it has never been officially confirmed — most people generally agree is named Sterling Smith. The enigmatic performer arrives in St. Louis on Friday to play a gig with two local musicians who've never met him and have no idea what to expect.
The first era, beginning in 1978, was the reclusive era. During this time, Jandek released more than 70 albums on the Corwood Industries label. Each was packaged as simply as could be: a washed-out or blurry photograph on front, a track listing and mailing address on back. The songs were desolate, arid, often ramshackle. If you gathered a group of cave-dwellers who'd never heard modern music, vaguely described the blues to them and assigned them to make their own records, the results might resemble the most compelling Jandek offerings.
During this initial era, there were no live performances. There were only two or three documented interviews. Tracked down by Texas Monthly in 1999, the interviewee steadfastly denied being Jandek and ultimately asked to never be contacted again. It was nearly impossible to separate the mystique from the music. Nonetheless, in 2003 there was an entire documentary on the subject. Jandek on Corwood, directed by Chad Freidrichs, attempts to place the mystery in some kind of context. Though Jandek declined to participate, he sent a now-famous epigram: "You may not get all the answers you want. It's better that way."
Then came the most unexpected, left-field move to date: Jandek played a live show.
In October 2004 a man referred to only as "a representative from Corwood Industries" performed unannounced at a Glasgow, Scotland, experimental-music festival. Thin, gaunt and dressed in a black hat, the lead singer and guitarist was clearly an older version of the man from the album covers. By all accounts, both performer and audience enjoyed it.
So began the second era of Jandek, which continues through the present. There have been several dozen appearances since that initial Glasgow show. Rather than prepare a setlist, gather a band and mount a tour, Jandek has instead approached each show as a unique event. The artist has a loose group of regular collaborators, and he has played with the likes of Mike Watt (Minutemen), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and John Darnielle (Mountain Goats). Frequently, however, performances draw on the destination's local, improvisationally minded players.
In that spirit, when Jandek plays the Billiken Club on Friday, March 21, the band will consist of two local musicians: Joseph Hess of Hot Salad on drums (Full disclosure, Hess is the editorial coordinator at Riverfront Times), and Matty Coonfield of Tone Rodent and Bug Chaser on electric bass. Neither Hess nor Coonfield has had any contact with Jandek. Neither has been given song titles, sheet music or any other indication of what to expect.
"I guess that's the beauty of it," Coonfield says. "Just going up there and doing it, anything can happen."
Continue to page two.