A Conversation with Thalia Zedek and Glenn Jones

The prolific indie rock icons discuss Boston's music scene, their many mutual collaborators, and their seemingly infinite projects.

Thalia Zedek has been a non-stop musical force since the early ‘80s, making her name with Live Skull, Come, and the Thalia Zedek Band, among other projects. Her latest album with TZB is Fighting Season, and it’s a reflective, mournful, fantastic set. Zedek spoke for Talkhouse with her equally storied Thrill Jockey labelmate Glenn Jones, who’s best known as part of the boundary-pushing band Cul de Sac. Jones’ latest is The Giant Who Ate Himself And Other New Works for 6- and 12-String Guitar.
—Josh Modell, executive editor, Talkhouse

Thalia Zedek: We did a show together not too long ago. Or, no, I came to see you play with—

Glenn Jones: Marisa Anderson.

Thalia Zedek: Yeah, Marisa Anderson, who’s also our labelmate. You remarked how we have shared many a bandmate, which is kind of hilarious. I never realized it was that many. Did you ever play with anyone in [Zedek’s old band] Dangerous Birds? I think it’s kind of going back to just about every band I’ve ever been in.

Glenn Jones: No, but I dated Margery [Meadows] for about two years. We were boyfriend and girlfriend for a good while, and I was friends with Lori Green for the last couple years that she worked here. I did a couple shows where she did solo shows, and I played guitar behind her.

Thalia Zedek: Oh, wow.

Glenn Jones: We covered “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and one of her songs, when she was just playing with a hand percussionist and a guitarist. I played with her one night, the night that my car got stolen. Came out of the gig and my car was gone. You don’t forget that. So I know a lot of these people, and it’s curious because I sort of became aware of your activities around the same time that I first started playing in bands in Boston myself, so I think our history begins about the same time. I started playing maybe 1978, ’79, something like that? The first band I was in was called Shut Up.

Thalia Zedek: After the Girls, right?

Glenn Jones: After the Girls. I came to Boston and I’d heard this song by the Girls, “Jeffrey I Hear You,” on the radio, and I loved the song and never knew that it was a local band. I was at the original Newbury Comics when Mike Dreese was, like, behind this card table with a bunch of cardboard boxes with singles that he picked up from Europe.

Thalia Zedek: I remember that.

Glenn Jones: I said, “Do you have this record, ‘Jeffrey I Hear You’ by the Girls?” He goes, “It would be in the G box if we have it.” I said, “Yeah, I looked through there, I didn’t see it,” and he said, “Yeah, well.” I said, “Well, can I special order it?” I was really kind of being a nudge about it. I was like, “I can pay for it in advance,” and he goes, “Why don’t you just ask the guy next to you? He’s in the band,” and Robin Amos, who I’d never met before, was looking at the records in the box right next to me.

Thalia Zedek: That’s hilarious.

Glenn Jones: That’s how I found out they were a local band and that they didn’t exist anymore, and that’s how we kind of got together and formed the first electric band that I played in in Boston, which was Shut Up. We did one record, which I’m not particularly proud of these days, but members of Vitamin played on it, if you remember, if you go back that far.

Thalia Zedek: Yeah. I love those guys. They were one of my favorite bands. I feel like that is about when I started. I moved to Boston in ’79.

Glenn Jones: Was Dangerous Birds your first band?

Thalia Zedek: No, I was in a band called White Women for, like, a year and a half before that.

Glenn Jones: Oh, I don’t know that. Did you put anything out?

Thalia Zedek: They did after I left the band. They went on for a little while longer, and the only thing that was recorded was something I wasn’t on. It was with the woman, Dolores Paradise, who was Lou Miami’s wife, and this woman Judy Jetson. You remember her? Yeah, and this woman, Leslie Green, who had this band, Noon Day Underground, for a while.

Glenn Jones: That kind of rings a bell, too. I’m not sure.

Thalia Zedek: She was in White Women with me in the beginning, and then she left, and then after I left she actually came back. I think she was the one that did the recording. She was a New Jersey girl who was in Boston for school. I don’t think she’s in town anymore, but she was nice. It was kind of a really wild band. We played at Cantones a lot, and Maverick’s a lot. My first two bands were all female-oriented.

Glenn Jones: Did you ever work with any of The Bound and Gagged? That was a six-piece, I think, all-girl band.

Thalia Zedek: They’re crazy, and you know what? I don’t know if you’ve listened to [their record] recently, but it has totally aged well. It sounds amazing. It’s great. I was like, “Oh my god, this record is so great.” I think I appreciate it more now than I even did then.

Glenn Jones: Robin, from the bands I’ve worked with, in Cul de Sac and Shut Up, produced the album.

Thalia Zedek: Oh, did he? Definitely check it out. You’ll be like, “Man.” These guys would be so hot right now. I didn’t realize that Robin produced it.

Glenn Jones: Yeah. Which he said was mostly keeping them from fighting with each other.

Thalia Zedek: Martha I’m still in touch with, a little bit. We’re just friends on Facebook, but she was talking to me about [how] someone’s going to re-release a bunch of the stuff. I told her, “You definitely should do it, it’s going to be great.” Like, really, people will love this. She was psyched.

Glenn Jones: I don’t know how you feel, but working in Boston, I never really felt like part of the Boston rock scene. The stuff that I was most interested in here were kind of the left field [bands]. I mean, I was a fan of Mission of Burma; I guess they were a popular band. But, like, the Battle of the Bands? I never really cared about any of the groups that won the Battle of the Bands. It was Bound and Gagged and Dangerous Birds and a lot of the bands that you were involved with, or Chris Brokaw was involved with—that was the stuff. It wasn’t until… I don’t know if you read Ryan Walsh’s book, Astral Weeks?

Thalia Zedek: Yes, I did. I love that.

Glenn Jones: I felt for maybe a couple days a vague sense of pride, being from Boston, after reading that book. It’s a feeling I have not exactly felt. I feel that with people like you.

Thalia Zedek: Yeah. I think with Come I was more involved in the Boston scene. I’ve been involved in a few different Boston scenes, so, if there was a certain scene when I first moved here—when Shut Up and Dangerous Birds were around—it was definitely a real sort of New York, Boston scene. There’s a lot of back and forth between New York and Boston. I remember seeing Sonic Youth really, really early on. I think Dangerous Birds played with them at Danceteria, and that had to have been like ’81 or ’82. Then I moved to New York for a while, when I was with Live Skull. Then when I came back, it was already the ‘90s.

Glenn Jones: That was a great band. Now, is it true that you’re reforming, or there’s a reunion concert or something?

Thalia Zedek: Not exactly. I did a show with Rich, who was the second drummer after James Lowe, and Marnie, who was the original bass player, and Mark C and me did a show. The three of them had gotten together to celebrate Martin Bisi’s—was it his 30th anniversary show? I think it was 30th. I’m not sure. They recorded, and they asked me to do it but I couldn’t. I think I was on tour or something. They had so much fun doing that they decided they wanted to keep going, but they didn’t want to do any Live Skull songs. They wanted to do all new stuff, so they’re calling themselves New Old Skull.

Glenn Jones: [Laughs.] Junior.

Thalia Zedek: Then there was a bunch of anniversary shows for the record release, and they asked me if I wanted to come and join them on stage at the New York show. I said yes, and it was really fun, because at that point I think all their songs were… I think Mark was singing on one of the songs, and the other ones were instrumental, so they kind of exchanged tapes. I went down and rehearsed one weekend, and did the show. It was a lot of fun. They’re keeping going now, but I’m not gonna continue to be a part of it. Those guys all live in New York and I live in Boston.

Glenn Jones: You’ve certainly got no shortage of projects. I’m always amazed.

Thalia Zedek: I know. I went through a period where I was feeling kind of stuck, and like I really needed to do other stuff. It’s really helped a lot. It really helps a lot to do that, because I was just so focused on the Thalia Zedek Band for so many years after Come broke up, and I’m the only songwriter in that band. I mean, we all contribute to arrangements and stuff, but I just started feeling kind of creatively drained, and I just needed to be in more sort of collaborative type projects.

Glenn Jones: You definitely have something in a band that you don’t have playing solo. I love playing solo; I was ready to do that. In the 20 years that Cul de Sac was together, you kind of… I guess it’s chemistry. You work with people long enough and you kind of know what they’re going to do before they even know what they’re going to do sometimes, so you give that up. But the one thing I don’t miss is having to lug all those amps around and rent vans, and having to coordinate your schedule with people with day jobs, and kids, and stuff like that. It becomes very tough. And I was ready to go back to playing acoustic guitar again, which is how I started out, even as a teenager.

It’s funny because at the same time that we were both starting out playing music in the late ‘70s in Boston—I moved here in 1977 and had been a big John Fahey fan, the late American Primitive Guitar thing, and all that. I didn’t know until I moved here that Boston was the first city where Fahey’s records sold at any appreciable numbers.They had a little basement distributor in California, and they sold here. His first paying gig was in Boston. So he was still coming to Boston; he came to Boston sometimes as much as twice a year. Usually at least once a year.

I got to meet him at one of his shows when he came up here. At the same time that I was starting to play electric music and getting involved in the sort of art, punk, whatever it was scene, I was also getting to know John. I never really was away too far from the finger-style stuff. In fact, when I put together Cul de Sac, it was an attempt to kind of marry finger-style guitar played on electric guitar with Robin’s harsh electronics and Chris Guttmacher’s noise style drumming, but kind of making an American version of krautrock or something that included that American style of guitar and everything else. I don’t know that we particularly succeeded, but that was the goal.

Thalia Zedek: That was a really cool band. I didn’t realize that you played acoustic. That one church show when I heard you play, I was just completely blown away. Oh my god this is so amazing. It was all there. I just loved it, and I still love what you’re doing. You can’t do that with a band, and it doesn’t need a band. You’ve got it all covered, whereas for me, I think I really liked playing with a band ’cause my guitar playing is more or less just rhythm guitar. It’s hard for me to pick melodies and I can’t do that stuff. So I like playing with a band, and I really love the musicians that I play with. They’ve all been with me for a long time, actually.

Glenn Jones: You’ve got the power. You’ve got greater dynamics.

Thalia Zedek: Yeah. I could relate to what you said about coordinating a band, and it is really hard to do. I’ve been thinking I want to be able to play, so I should be able to do this stuff solo, but it’s a really, really different thing and it really took me a few years of just failing miserably and feeling terrible about performing solo, until I kinda had a breakthrough at some point and all of a sudden I felt comfortable doing it. Actually, at the beginning of this year, I did that tour in Europe with Damon and Naomi just performing solo every night, and I really enjoyed it. Before I would freeze and forget lyrics. I’d get really self-conscious. Are you gonna do a bunch of touring?

Glenn Jones: I hope so. I’m talking about hitting major cities where I would kinda fly out and fly back. I’m delighted to do it that way, but I really like getting in a car and going out for two or three weeks. Plus, you’ve got the luxury of not having to worry about airlines. You can carry all your stuff with you. You don’t have to winnow everything down to just what you can take on a flight.

Thalia Zedek: Yeah, flying on the airlines now, they won’t even let you bring your guitar on the plane. They make you buy a seat for it. That’s the new thing. I used to just put my guitar in a gig bag, ’cause it always fits. I know acoustic is different. Just be forewarned, in the last six months, the latest trend for airlines is to say that guitars cannot be brought on the plane unless you buy a seat for it.

Glenn Jones: Wow. That stinks.

Thalia Zedek: Do you check your guitars?

Glenn Jones: When I travel overseas, I carry an OM style, the smallest guitar, which will fit in the overhead of any plane, and I generally take it on as a backpack thing and usually it’s okay. Sometimes they want me to check it at the gate, but even that’s better than sending it on the conveyor belt and the truck and all that stuff. Knock on wood, I haven’t had any problems. There’s always that uncertainty when you get to the airport.

Thalia Zedek: I know a lot of people that have run into that, and one musician—he cracked me up because he went, “Yeah they made me buy a seat for my guitar,” and then they oversold the flight and they wanted him to put his guitar in the overhead rack and he refused. He said, “No, I paid for this seat. My guitar is staying in it.” They were just like, “Oh, but it’ll fit up here!” He’s like “Nope, nope, nope.”

Thalia Zedek: Do you mostly tour in the States or in Europe?

Glenn Jones: Being on the East Coast is kind of great ’cause the options here are really good. You don’t realize that until you go to the West Coast and discover that after you play northern California, it’s, like, a 14-hour drive to the next gig. I’ve got a lot of one-off gigs, occasional tours of the East Coast and Canada to Midwest. And then usually after a new record comes out, I’ll do three weeks in Europe and the UK. Sometimes more. After I started touring on my own I could understand why it was nice to have a second person with you. It just makes things a lot easier.

Thalia Zedek: Does Nora usually come with you?

Glenn Jones: No. The best paying gig I ever had, I got hired to play the World’s Fair in Zaragoza, Spain one year, and it paid so well that Nora and I took a vacation and went to France and did all this other stuff. That was the only show she went with me on, just because I had the luxury to bring her along and really take a vacation around this one crazy show at the World’s Fair. No one was there to hear me, it was just, like, whoever was there that day to visit the Fair. We traveled around Portugal and Spain on this narrow-gauge railway, and then we took a sleeper train. It was like in Some Like It Hot with the one of those sleeper trains from border of Spain to Paris. It was really cool.

Thalia Zedek: Awesome. I guess I thought you were over there more often. You seem to tour a lot.

Glenn Jones: Not as much as you, I don’t think. I watch your schedule and it’s like, This girl is working. It takes me approximately two years to write enough material for an album, ’cause I reject more stuff than I keep. It’s usually about that long between major tours of the UK and Europe. Then, just whatever I can get in the US in between times.

Thalia Zedek: That’s funny, because I feel the same way about you. It seems like you’re always on tour and it seems like a record’s coming out every year.

Glenn Jones: People are like “What, you’ve got another record coming out?” I’m like, “It’s been two years man!”

Thalia Zedek: People don’t realize that oftentimes it can be quite a while between when you made the record and when it comes out. Like, “Wow, you’re so prolific!” It’s like, Well actually, that record was written three years ago, even though it just came out a month ago.

Glenn Jones: I know, and now the LP pressing plants are so backed up. It’s, like, the lead time. I got done with the current record last October, or something like that, and so here it’s just coming out in August, and it’s just because of the lead time that they need to get stuff. Major labels are clogging up the arteries of the record pressing plants. It’s all those Beyonce records and Bruce Springsteen, or whatever it is. I don’t know.

Thalia Zedek: How do you feel about your new record? Is it different?

Glenn Jones: Not so much. Let’s see. The album was recorded in New Jersey by my friend Laura Baird who did this album and the previous two. I hire Laura because she can always find a great place to record. We get a place for a week and we’ve got the luxury of just recording at our leisure, some place away from the world and away from cell phones and Facebook and all that stuff. Being that it’s solo guitar, I don’t need to really worry about a studio environment or whatever. We can just record in a house on a creek or something like that, and that’s nice. Plus, Laura and I know each other so well at this point that all my peculiarities don’t faze her at all.

Thalia Zedek: So how does she do that, out of curiosity? You guys rent a place?

Glenn Jones: Yeah. The first place we did it was a place she and her husband were living at in New Jersey. It was like a farm house, but it was, like, a quarter mile off the main road, this gravel road. There was no traffic noises or anything else, and huge woods and a big river in the backyard. I would say things like, “Let’s just go outside and record ourselves walking around.” We would do that. I wouldn’t necessarily use it, but I might like listen to that while I was doing an improv piece and kind of just respond to the sounds of us walking and talking and then take out that original recording, so you’ve got all this space built into the recording.

Then the last time, we recorded in Delaware off the Rancocas Creek, which is off the Delaware River. The creek was literally right out the back door. If you walked 10 steps from the house, you were in the water. That was really nice. Then this time, she wasn’t able to find a place that she thought would work as well and we went back to the original house again. Because the house had worked so well, it felt like homecoming in a way. She’s really good. She’s a great musician herself. Plays banjo and fiddle and guitar and writes songs. She’s Meg Baird’s sister, so they recorded as the Baird sisters and she has a couple records out under her own name.

Anyway, she’s a musician, so she can give me feedback. “I think you can do a better take than that, Glenn,” or whatever. It’s just the way her brain works. She’s also very technical-minded in terms of where to set up the mics and how to set them up, and things like that.

Thalia Zedek: The room for acoustic must be huge.

Glenn Jones: Her old music room is in that farmhouse, so it’s a really good space. She’s so funny to work with. You know, we did this one piece on there called “A Different Kind of Christmas Carol.” I won’t go into the story about the piece and all that, but originally it was kind of like an anti-Christmas song, until this 8-year-old at a gig—she was there with her mother… I wasn’t able to knock Christmas, ’cause she was so enthusiastic about it. So I was on stage saying, “Yeah it’s great. I hope you’ll always love it,” and kind of biting my tongue.

After I started playing it, I started thinking what a jerk I am, like, putting down Christmas. I remember being a kid and how excited I was, so I started playing the song more tenderly and I started dedicating the song to her—Audrey is her name. I remembered her name because that was my mom’s name. So on the new record, we got a really good take of this song and I said to Laura, “What do you think about putting sleigh bells at the end?” Really kind of corny, but just to really nail home the Christmas-y aspect of it. She said, “Good!” I said, “All right, you record the sleigh bells.” I was upstairs and listening to a recording; It seemed like she was working on the sleigh bells for a really long time, like an hour, or something like that.

So I kinda crept downstairs in my stocking feet, thinking that maybe she was recording and I didn’t wanna make any noise, and she was in the room with her headphones on with a bunch of sleigh bells on this leather strap, trotting around the living room, trying to get that horse rhythm in there. Of course, when she saw me she got red in the face and embarrassed and stopped.

She takes her job seriously.

Thalia Zedek: Is it digital, or is it all on tape?

Glenn Jones: No, it’s definitely digital. Laura does all the recording and then my guy, Matthew Acevedo—we do all the mastering and EQ-ing and that stuff at his studio, down in Rhode Island. Laura and Matt are my left and right hand for album making. They’re really key, and I’m just so comfortable with both of them. Matt used to work at M Works. A really good guy. Electronic musician, so he understands the music, but he also understands the technical stuff. He’s amazing. He studied with Pauline Oliveros, so he studied modern music, but he’s also one of these guys that works for this company. He’ll go to Japan, some big building that they’re going to be doing concerts in, and he’ll set up mics in all corners of the room, and stand in the middle of the room and pop a balloon. Then take that digital information back and then they can tell the place, here is how you need to baffle the room for the best sound.

Thalia Zedek: Do you know Andy Hong, Kimchee Records?

Glenn Jones: I know the label, but I don’t think I know him.

Thalia Zedek: He’s owned his own studio for a long time, and he had a record label called Kimchee Records that I did the second TZ Band record with. Now, he doesn’t have the label anymore, but he has kept his studio and moved it a few times. It’s still called Kimchee Records and he’s great. He started Tape Op, that magazine, and he does all the gear reviews for that. He’s just a super nice guy.

He’s down the street and a very, very good engineer, and over the years we’ve developed such a strong…. He knows just how to mic my voice, what microphone to use, and he just gets it. That’s really valuable. I feel like every record I’ve made with him gets better and better, because we know each other better and better. I think musically, he likes what I’m doing so he has really good suggestions sometimes for arrangements.

Glenn Jones: I love that kind of rapport. I’ve done gigs with people that you can just tell they don’t get what you’re doing. You’re basically doing it yourself. The same thing with Matt—it’s like I can tell him emotionally, “This section should feel colder than the rest of the song,” and he’ll do something to it. “All right, how’s this sound?” Or I’ll say it should sound a little more under water-y, or far away or something, but kind of subtly. He’ll figure out a way to make that happen.

Thalia Zedek: Right. My new record was recorded with Andy, and then there was cello on it.

Chris Brokaw does some guitar stuff on it, which is really nice. He works with Andy a lot too, and he had been in Andy’s studio and I was like, “You should come down and do some tracks.” Actually, I wanted him to do slide guitar in a song. He ended up not doing slide, but he had some really interesting reverb effect. It almost sounds like a lap steel, but with a volume pedal.

Glenn Jones: Oh, yeah. You can do the swells and stuff.

Thalia Zedek: It was really cool. He ended up doing that, not the slide, and then he ended up playing on this other song that I actually didn’t want him to play on, but he really wanted to play on. That was the song that just came out as a single that J Mascis plays on. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that band Dinosaur Jr.

Glenn Jones: Oh, sure. I did a recording that J was also on—we both backed up Jad Fair, some record he made 30 years ago. It was the Sonic Youth drummer, members of NRBQ, J Mascis, me.

Thalia Zedek: Yet another coincidence, because I’ve sung on some Dinosaur Jr. records before.

I’ve known J for a while. He’s always been super supportive. Come toured with them a lot, and TZ Band has done some shows with them. Anyway, I’d written the song and, from the minute I wrote it, I could hear J’s guitar in it, always. I was going to put down a solo, my imitation of J Mascis.

Finally I was just like, “Why don’t I ask?” Winston, my bass player and him, pretty much grew up together in Western Mass. I was pretty sure he would say yes and would want to do it, but the question is, he tours so much. But it was just really lucky, he happened to be home and he was recording stuff in his home studio and doing some tracking for whatever. He was like, “Just send it over,” and he put a killer solo down on it. I knew that J was working on that, and Chris just loved that song, because he heard me play it a couple times, so he really wanted to play on it. I’ve got both Chris Brokaw and J Mascis playing on that song.

Glenn Jones: When is your album coming out?

Thalia Zedek: September 21. It’s called Fighting Season.

Glenn Jones: Good title.

Thalia Zedek: Thanks. It’s named after one of the songs on it. It was still the five-piece thing, but on this record I really decided to do different stuff with arrangements. The song that J and Chris both play on is a guitar-bass-drums song. There’s no piano or viola on it. I was experimenting, and then I had some songs with no drums on it, and then with cello, viola, and guitar, and songs with just piano and guitar, trying to mix it up a little bit.

Glenn Jones: Is this band going to tour after the record comes out? Is that typically how you do it? The most recent record you do, if it’s the TZ Band or E, or whatever, then is that the band that tours?

Thalia Zedek: I try to do it, but I can’t always do it financially, and sometimes there’s other reasons why people can’t go. I did a tour of E, and it ended up being a five piece, but the bass player and drummer were from… Well, the bass player was this guy in Berlin, Zasha, who played with me in Come. He has a drummer that he worked with, Klaus, who’s really interesting. He also played with that guy Damo Suzuki. Those guys were the rhythm section, and then Dave Curry on viola and Mel Lederman on piano.

I did some touring with that combination, about three weeks, and then I went back on my own and did some solo stuff, too, in some places that I hadn’t gotten to with the band. I’m not always able to bring everyone. If I could, I would, but sometimes financially—

Glenn Jones: Obviously, no J Mascis on the tour.

Thalia Zedek: Oh, no. Me and Chris are going to do a little living room tour in October, a house concert tour through this company called the Undertow Collective. They work with a lot of people, and Chris has worked with them before on a similar tour. He thought it would be a really good idea. It’s fun, because you can go to places that you can’t really go to with the band, and you don’t have to rent a van, and all that kind of stuff. I still want to go with the band, but that’s going to be a nice tour. It’s going to be mostly living rooms.

Undertow is really cool. They’re like, “Sure, if you get a gig doing something else in a club, just take it.” They don’t have to have exclusive stuff, which is really nice. It can be a combination of different things. It’s not going to be all living rooms, because in some cities we have a lot of friends, but a living room has to have certain specs too, and it has to be able to hold a certain number of people, and parking, and it just didn’t work out for some cities. But there was a great coffee shop, or a great art gallery that someone knew about, so we’re doing that instead. I’d be doing that solo, and then my hope is to come back and get a van.

Like I’m sure you do, I always love going out to Chicago and visiting the guys in Thrill Jockey. I’ve gotta to play Chicago on every record, because I just want to see them, so hopefully I’ll do a little Midwest run too.

Glenn Jones: Chicago always feels positive. It’s the highlight of any tour.

(Photo Credit: Left, Lana Caplan; Right, Jesse Sheppard)

Thalia Zedek has been a non-stop musical force since the early ‘80s, making her name with Live Skull, Come, and the Thalia Zedek Band, among other projects. Her latest album with TZB is Fighting Season, out via Thrill Jockey.