I saw these guys open for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in Dallas, Texas back in April. My girlfriends and I decided to ditch the second night of Austin Psych Fest and see these young ones open for our favorite band. I had a huge smile on my face during their set. These young bloods have energy, musicianship and moxie for miles. There is a wholly satisfied feeling that comes with the knowledge that there are teens out there who are reaching for a guitar instead of an auto tune button. Front man Jonah Smith was in a bit of a daze after the gig, and who could blame him. His band had just opened for their heroes. Luckily, he agreed to an interview before being swept away by a gaggle of young girls.
REKWIRED: How old were you when you wrote your first song? How did that come about? Did you study classical guitar? Did you just pick it up and teach yourself?
JS: I was around eight or nine when I first started playing. My dad convinced me to start taking lessons from this Flamenco guitar virtuoso, Russ Hewitt. It was around that time that I wrote my first song, called “Green House Effect.” I was learning about Global Warming in school at the time, and the song definitely reflects my innocuous viewpoint on it, and being eight years old. Ha.
REKWIRED: What is the hardest thing so far, for you, as budding musicians? How do you balance school, touring, writing, rehearsing, etc? I teach kids your age, and some of them have so little motivation or ambition! It’s very sad to see. What keeps you moving forward?
JS: Moving forward has never really been an issue for me personally simply because I’ve always known that this is exactly what I want to do with life. In playing with other kids my age, I’ve noticed it really depends on your level of commitment. You have to be zealous about being in a band and making music to some extent. If you’re not, it’s just too much work, and there’s really no point. You have to draw the line between music being a hobby and a serious endeavor. I’m lucky enough to be in a band with people who are just as driven as I am. Also, there’s a certain level of camaraderie between the four of us that is pretty essential in having a functional band.
REKWIRED: Your musical heroes are BRMC, and you have been lucky enough to have been gifted a leather biker jacket by the guys in the band. How were you introduced to their music?
JS: My buddy Max introduced me to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in 6th grade. He played me the first couple of songs on “Take Them On, On Your Own” and I didn’t react at first, but somehow I came back for another listen, then another. Eventually, I fell in love with the song “Stop” and from there it opened the floodgates, and I was completely infatuated. I saw them live in April of 2010, and it changed my life. They became by favorite band.
REKWIRED: Like BRMC, you like to switch up your guitars, even during a short set. How many guitars do you own, and when/how did you acquire your first one? What is your favorite brand?
JS: We wouldn’t rotate between guitars so much if half of our songs weren’t in alternate tunings. I have four or five. My first guitar was a Fender Squire. It was great for learning. As far as brands go, I LOVE Gretsch.
REKWIRED: It’s not every day a bunch of 15-year-olds get to open for such an established band. They clearly respect you as musicians. Tell us a little bit about the relationship you have fostered with BRMC and their response to your music.
JS: It all started when they played at Trees in Dallas in October of 2010. I was there with Evan (lead guitarist of Plowboy). We were walking around after the show when we were approached by a guy who looked as though he should’ve been in BRMC but wasn’t. He introduced himself as iAN Ottaway and asked us if we wanted to meet the band. He was really impressed that a couple of 12-year-old kids were at a BRMC show. We jumped at the chance, and he took us backstage, and we got to meet Peter, Robert and Leah, which was great. After that night, my Dad and I kept in touch with iAN (who writes the ‘ASK iAN’ blog on BRMC’s website) and we’ve crossed paths a few times since. Through iAN, we established a connection to BRMC. iAN is in my top five favorite people ever. I owe a lot to him.
REKWIRED: Besides BRMC, what other musicians/artists/writers have inspired you?
JS: The four of us adore Radiohead. The Doors have always been a huge influence on me personally – Jim Morrison in particular. The Dandy Warhols have also been a prominent influence on Plowboy’s sound. On the other side of the coin, Colin and Evan are really far into electronic music at the moment, and I think Isaac and I are starting to catch on. That style definitely hasn’t shown itself in our sound yet, but I would expect more of that in the future.
REKWIRED: Is there an album in the works?
JS: We released our debut record “Headlong and Roaming” last year, produced by Brandon Smith.
REKWIRED: Your dad, JP, who is one of the most decent men I have had the pleasure of meeting, is your manager. Was he always supportive of your dream of becoming a musician? Was there ever a time when he was worried about that calling and wanted you to focus on a more traditional/practical career choice?
JS: Never…quite the antitheses. I think he’s always kind of turned me away from the more pragmatic side of things. It seems like a lot of last generation’s rock and roll spawned, and was kind of based around, rebellion against authority from parents, schools, etc… the scenario you would see in a Twisted Sister video. This has never been the case for me, and with having so much support for my creativity from authority figures, I’ve found there’s so much more to Rock ‘n’ Roll than the angry rebellious side of it. For me, it’s much more of a celebration than a fight.
REKWIRED: Besides your dad, who else has been an integral part of promoting and supporting your music?
JS: All of our parents have been overwhelmingly supportive, and we’re really lucky in that regard. Filmmaker Tony Gallucci has been working on a documentary about the band for about three years now called Jonah’s Wail. Tony’s always been incredibly supportive of us. Chris Holt, who has been our band mentor since the beginning has been a very integral part of everything. iAN Ottaway continues to be an unwavering source of counsel and love.
REKWIRED: What is next for Plowboy? Shows? Albums? Collaborations? Summer vacations?
JS: Expect a plethora of shows this summer, and we hope to start demoing the next record soon.
This restless muse recovers from touring with the Dum Dum Girls by diving into her latest project, directing Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s teaser videos for their upcoming album Specter at the Feast. Rekwired gets a few minutes with the ever-busy, beautiful and talented renaissance woman.
Rekwired: The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club teaser videos you directed to promote their newest album include voiceovers from the band members taken from interviews or conversations. Can you elaborate on how you were able to accumulate such candid and intimate footage and audio?
Malia James: Inspired by my interview series ONE:ONE, Robert wanted me to apply that approach to telling a story about the band or the album. The idea behind ONE:ONE was to weave together the intimacy of a photo shoot and the candidness of a conversation between two people. Most people don’t like being interviewed on camera, so I film the subjects without any concern for the audio. Later, I’ll sit down with the subject and talk over a glass of wine or a cup of tea. Each “interview” lasted at least a few hours, and there’s as much personal information about myself on the recordings as there is about whomever I was talking to. I can’t expect someone to tell me their dark secrets if I’m not willing to share mine. I’ve always approached interviews that way.
Rekwired: Some of the camera work on the B.R.M.C. teasers is really interesting. What types of cameras and effects were used for this series? Where were they filmed?
MJ: With the exception of some of the studio footage at 606, everything was shot by me on a Canon 5D. I have a few tricks to make the footage look the way it does, but I can’t very well go sharing that with the world. We filmed in LA and Felton, CA. I see the 5D as the modern day Bolex and, in that way, I like to let it feel human. I don’t mind things being in and out of focus, shaky, or of varying exposures. To me, that feels more real and intimate and lends itself to this style of storytelling.
Rekwired: Was there much collaboration between you and the band members when directing and editing the footage?
MJ: I may be one of the only people given near free reign in the direction and edit of projects for BRMC.
Rekwired: How long did this project take from idea to realization? Any future B.R.M.C. projects possibly in the works?
MJ: We first discussed the idea of this project long before anything was ever put into motion. It was shot and edited over a period of 4-5 months. I’m currently making the video for “Let the Day Begin” and possibly starting another project with them after. I hope there will always be some new collaboration between myself and BRMC on the horizon.
Rekwired: I’ve had the pleasure of watching you in action when you were shooting the Dum Dum Girls video. You seemed to be having a good time even though working on set can be a stressful experience. You maintained a sense of humor throughout the long day. How do you keep your composure and maintain your energy level during those demanding hours?
MJ: I really, really love what I do. Sometimes, producing a video or a project is so stressful, I don’t think I can bear to do it again – asking favors, wrangling things short notice, working understaffed, etc., but as soon as I’m on set and we start shooting, it’s bliss. I hope that feeling never goes away.
When I first started out, I was the first assistant for Chris McPherson, a successful advertising and editorial photographer. He was great with people and was always in a good mood heading to set. I asked him once if he ever got nervous beforehand and he said, “I’m not a doctor. If I screw up, nobody dies.” What I took most from that is that what we do should be fun, even when things go wrong. It’s a music video, people. Chill out. Enjoy yourselves.
Rekwired: Most of your visual art relies on a black and white aesthetic. What draws your eye and vision to those colors?
MJ: I’ve been going through a black and white period, it would seem, but I’m equally drawn to working with color. When my work involves color, especially in video, it becomes a part of the narrative. There’s a scene in the movie Paris, TX where he visits his wife in a brothel where she works. There’s a really intense contrast in the blue and red lighting for that. I was so moved by that use of color; it’s burned in my memory. Kubrick is also famous for his intentional use of color.
Rekwired: Which artists, writers, musicians serve as muses or influences when you are imagining a project? From which artists in particular do you repeatedly gain inspiration?
MJ: I draw a lot of inspiration from movies. I don’t go to bars or socialize much at all, but I love watching films. Hitchcock and Kubrick are my biggest inspiration. Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold are two of my favorite current directors. I also spend a lot of time trolling tumblr for inspiration. It’s important to have an extensive reference library as a director because, unless your client trusts your vision entirely, you have to be able to build a picture for them of what you plan to do.
Rekwired: What do you think is the biggest challenge for filmmakers and photographers today?
MJ: Budgets are not what they used to be, so you have to be able to think creatively when you can’t throw money at your problems. It’s exhausting to have to always ask for favors and convince people that their effort will pay off later, but I’m lucky to have a group of talented friends and colleagues who believe in me enough to hang on for the ride. I wouldn’t be where I am if not for that kind of support from my DP, James Wall, and my editor, Forrest Borie.
Rekwired: Do you storyboard before a video shoot? Journal? Collage? Let us in on your process.
MJ: I’ve never had much time to prepare for most of my jobs, so I’ve never had a storyboard and rarely had a definitive shot list (which makes my DP crazy), though I always have a clear vision of what I want and I’m very, very particular. In general, when I have downtime (which is almost never), I love to journal and collage. I like to keep my brain active creatively in one way or another.
As for my process, when it comes to photography, I just find a good location and good light and keep it as loose as possible. I like to try and get people to forget we’re on a photo shoot.
When I’m trying to come up with an idea for a video, I tend to lay on the floor of my office with the lights dimmed and candles lit and listen to the song on repeat until something comes to mind. I’m big on creating a mood for creativity. Environment is important to me. Once I think of one kernel of an idea, I take that one thought and build around it. People sometimes say “I can’t imagine how you came up with x, y, and z,” but it’s important to remember you just take it one step at a time.
Rekwired: Making a living as a visual artist can be a challenge. What have you done to be financially stable over the years while still pursuing your passions?
MJ: I’ve always been willing to do anything and everything to make money to keep things going. Only 4 years ago, I was the PA out fetching coffee on photo shoots and now I’m the director, which is wild. My mother raised me as a single mother working freelance most of my younger life and I learned from her that it’s important to have skills you can fall back on. I’ve relied on credit cards to fund a lot of my early development, which will take a lot to pay off, but I looked at it as a necessary evil to move ahead. I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to know that I have family that would never leave me out in the cold, which I know isn’t a luxury everyone has. So, Mom, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU.
Rekwired: Your work spans genres, from photography to film to fine art. In
addition, you are a touring musician who has played with bands like The Black Ryder and Dum Dum Girls. Do you ever feel like you are not getting enough time to focus on one creative outlet or does this process work for you?
MJ: Ahhhhh, the million-dollar question everyone asks. “How do (I) find the time?” Each of my endeavors speaks to a different part of me. Maybe I could have been more successful earlier on if I’d focused on one medium, but I wouldn’t trade it for the myriad of experiences I’ve had along the way. I like to do it all, but it doesn’t come without sacrifice. I work all the time. I mean ALL THE TIME. I have some of the greatest friends I could ask for and I never see them. Romantic relationships? Forget it. I think eventually this compulsive drive will slow down a little, but for now it feels like an unstoppable train. I was taught that you can be or have anything you want, but you have to work for it.
I’ve been tagged by the illustrious Armenian-American poet, Ms. Lola Koundakjian, to do an interview for an expanding blog called, “The Next Big Thing.” Lola was tagged by another writer, and you can read Lola’s interview at http://lolakoundakjian.blogspot.com/ The idea is that I tag other writers to do the same. I accepted the invitation because it will force me to re-evaluate my unpublished manuscript while hopefully serving other writers in the process. Lola is a good example of a writer who is always busy writing, publishing, curating. Her practice is one I can learn a lot from. Who’s to say what can happen if writers around the globe agreed to participate in “The Next Big Thing,” answering the same questions about their work? I suspect there is a lot to learn from one another.
Now, the interview:
TNBT: Where did the idea come from for the book?
I suppose the confusion of being exposed to Judeo-Christianity from a slightly extremist group of evangelists who put the fear of God in me spurned thematic questions and lifted the resentment right out of my memories and onto the page. Let’s just say God and I are still getting to know each other, on better terms. I suppose our conversation is the book.
TNBT: What genre does your book fall under?
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
A movie rendition of a poetry collection written by an Armenian woman? I don’t see Dreamworks shelling out the big bucks for that, but let’s play with this idea just for the fun of it.
I would want whoever cast “I’m Not There” (the Bob Dylan bio-pic) to cast the movie. Patti Smith would have to make an appearance, either as God or my mother. Or both. PJ Harvey would play my alter ego, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club would provide the soundtrack and Jack White would play the devil or God. Or both.
TNBT: What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
You want to throw stones at a mirror? I am your mirror, and here are your stones. (Rumi) That’s two sentences, but it’s Rumi, so we’ll let it slide.
TNBT: How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I am still writing the first draft. I have been writing the first draft since the day I was born. I think it’s time to move on.
TNBT: Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I will give you the boring answer here. The MFA program I was attending required it, and I wanted to experience the process of putting one together. I produced something for that purpose at that point, but I was not happy with it as a piece that would live on for all posterity, so I am hanging onto it for a while until it’s ready. It’s past due, I know.
TNBT: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The title is Dogmata. It was going to be Gnosis, but I figured it would be hard for people to pronounce. Dogmata might change again though. There’s a movie with that name out there, and I don’t know yet if that would be a good or bad thing. The movie is by Kevin Smith, and it’s one I actually enjoyed because of all the religious and dark humor, but in terms of search engine data and such, I am not sure how much that association would help or hurt my little project, so we’ll see.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I am weighing a couple of options at this point. I have heard great things about Red Hen Press and Write Bloody Press who have both published writers who I know and admire. Copper Canyon is one I’ve always appreciated for their selections. Once I feel ready, I’ll reach out to some of these places and hope for the best.
The writers I will be tagging include:
Khadija Anderson, Brendan Constantine and Peggy Dobreer
Dream for Dido
I am not a phoenix forged from fire,
nor a shape shifter.
Taking life from cigarette ash,
I weigh next to nothing.
Like Dido who flung herself into the pyre,
I mean well, but flip the switch
and I am in this story, my own little aquarium.
First, the fallen arches. Then the broken floor.
Finally, a bathtub filled with unanswered prayers.
My fiery bed floats in the Mediterranean,
negotiates waves off the coast of Tunisia.
The vanity of a woman setting her own hair on fire.
I burn double-fast, smoke myself to death.
The bed now sits on flames of water,
in between Carthage and something deeply blushing.
I have been harangued and hung by men who have left me,
a learned girl,
a queen of costumes that don’t fit.
A sad smell enters,
and I tell a lie to strike a deal.
October 30, 2011
When did you start writing poetry, and why?
When I realized I wanted to ride a white horse into the sun’s sweet cunt, and because I’d rather lie for a living than die for a cause.
Do you come from a long line of writers?
I was born to a peasant girl and motorcycle boy whose shellacked hair and Brando get-up enticed the ladies.
I was born twice, once like a bone emerging from a carcass, then like a musical note hanging from a shelf of scratched vinyl.
You are Armenian by blood, Lebanese by birth, American by citizenship. How do you identify yourself as a poet?
I undress for my country,
take my shoes off,
rip the underwire out of my bra.
I am lighter than Beirut,
tamer than Mt. Ararat.
We are starting to think you are eluding your own questions.
Well, that is how I learned to love.
Why do you think so many poets kill themselves?
For the same reason so many dolphins commit suicide. We are not meant to live in captivity.
Which poets are your influences?
If you look closely, you can see them:
one behind the armchair, two hiding under
the dining room table, arms entwined.
The one in the bathroom is stuck,
her body halfway out the door,
and the one in the kitchen keeps turning the faucet
on and off. The bedroom holds three
big ones, two on the bed,
one by the vanity painting her face.
On rare occasions, they sit on my lap,
nudge someone in the back of the neck
with their glorious heads.
One even tried to eat the geraniums
on the windowsill when nobody was looking.
How would you describe your poetry?
Needy, like a sky recovering from a dog-day in August
and the color of skin after a slap.
Some days, it wears pearls –
other days, black leather.
Do you have a book coming out soon?
No, I don’t.
Here is a list of reasons:
#1 It’s a constant ballet between refusal and a gift horse.
#2 I have sunken deeper treasures in shallower waters.
#3 The cock-fight is more brutal when you’re the hen-pecked.
#4 Dark girls, like dark skies, are pregnant with buckets of cold truth.
#5 I have compulsions towards larceny, erudite women and telepathy.
#6 Under constitutional law, the anarchist must lay low.
#7 I must either take it all by the horns or be trampled under the hooves, but I want to eat the animal.
#8 When I hit bottom, I fold my arms and sit inside my own blood soup.
#9 I am not history nor talisman.
#10 I am hanging my shoes from the telephone wires above the new world order.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to thank The Nervous Breakdown, specifically Uche Ogbuji, for this opportunity.