All Photography by Jake Michaels
We have a partnership that is fairly…at times, it’s merely playful, at times it’s theoretical, it’s always kind of artistic, but in a lot of ways, it embodies the whole spectral range of what that can mean. –Jams
You might not have heard of Widows, but that's ok. You probably haven't heard of Jimmy Jams (aka Jams F. Kennedy) or Bobby Evans, but that's ok, too. If anything, you may have heard of their previous collaboration Brother Reade, but you're still forgiven if that doesn't ring a bell either especially if you've never spent any quality time mining the underground of LA’s music scene.
After talking with both of them for a solid hour in what was supposed to be a 20 minute Skype interview, what I can tell you with an unassailable degree of certainty is that you're missing out on two of the headiest and unconventional people working in music today.
To give you some familiar outlines to work with, I instantly felt like I was getting into it with Brother Ali (Jimmy Jams) and Mike Relm (Bobby Evans).
Jimmy Jams is the loquacious embodiment of all the enthusiasm and introspection that accompanied late ‘90s and early ‘00s hip-hop at the peak of its musical and cultural nexus. Poetry stumbles out of his mouth at every instance whether it's pensive and intentional or completely off the cuff. His answers to questions are long but nothing is filler.
Bobby Evans is the ying to Jimmy's yang. His brain-to-mouth filter is more methodical and selective, but that by no means makes him any less interesting. He speaks with precision and acumen about his craft. He is the structural integrity behind the overflowing creative energy of his partner and without each, the other would be lost in their own abstract compulsions.
I think a lot of it is the discovery process, where you’re trying to figure things out, you might have this vision of what you want music to sound like or something to look like, and you start exploring all these different options… –Bob
Together, they have a rare form of symbiosis that isn't just friendship but a shared artistry that has taken them down the same paths even as each was inclined to veer left or right suddenly. They are the quintessential pairing of frontman/lyricist and maestro/technician.
The musical offspring of their collective efforts as Widows is one of those rare products that truly defies genre and will conjure up different musical pedigree to different people. There are dubstep undertones to the production...but with an ample serving of J-Dilla. There's a bit of Sonic Youth and Fugazi, some Wu-Tang Clan, some Little Brother and some Dr. Octagon thrown into their sonic cauldron.
All this means is that these guys have spanned the musical spectrum over the years as fans and it shows in what they put out as artists. The conversation presented below is edited as little as possible to maintain their infectious spirit that quickly won me over. Their self-titled Widows EP should be out April of next year via the London based Earnest Endeavours. Widows will, though, be featured on an Earnest Endeavours compilation that'll be out in January. BTW, if you missed the guide to London that the guys behind Earnest Endeavours did for us you can check it out here.
If you had to describe yourselves in a few sentences with nothing related to music, how would you do that?
Jams: [sitting down in the backroom of a friend's house party]: Myself, personally, I believe the answer would just be talkative, if I had to choose one short way to get to myself. I don’t know…no reference to music at all? [pause]
We’ve been friends a long time, and we’re on some kind of path, not to make it too annoyingly new age or religious or whatever, but we’re traveling in some kind of direction, and it is almost annoying to account for that just musically a lot of times, so for me, I have a lot of disparate interests, and I know Bob does, too, but everything flows into one another, so whether it’s…we have a partnership that is fairly…at times, it’s merely playful, at times it’s theoretical, it’s always kind of artistic, but in a lot of ways, it embodies the whole spectral range of what that can mean.
Bob: We were talking about this the other day. We were talking about how…we’d just worked on this Green Box project, which is more of an art project than solely a music project, and we both did long interviews for it, and we were both really stoked about how, instead of just asking us about music or where we were from or how it came about that we started making the things that we do, it delved more into the ideas behind the process and the project.
Where are you guys at in your lives now?
Jams: We’re classicists, kind of, and we’re artists. People hesitate even to call themselves that, because it sounds pretentious, but I feel like it has meant more of a vocation or a lifestyle commitment. Almost in the same way where a soldier is a soldier, a doctor is a doctor. I don’t even feel like I’m that much of a musician, I can play drums, I understand a lot about music and I’ve written a whole lot of lyrics, I’ve written more lyrics than anything else, but I feel like what I’m trying to get at is the thing, not really the way that I’m doing it.
I think that Bob is the same way, that’s the common denominator of our relationship: whether or not our work is said to be conceptual, in whatever kind two-dimensional way that word gets used. There’s kind of a capital S story that we’re trying to get across, and every time we pin it down a little bit, it feels like it changes somewhat. That’s the point.
And it’s always evolving, right?
Jams: Yeah, absolutely, it’s not even like it’s evolving, it slips away from you a little bit, it’s one step ahead, kind of in a great way, but it’s a carrot on a stick. As soon as you get close and you feel like you’ve nailed it down, you create a work, you complete a task, complete a project, then the question that…basically, the survival question is, “What next?”
…it’s maybe a step backwards to start over and reconceptualize what you’re doing, but creatively, there was no question, it wasn’t even a debate, really. –Jams
As soon as you’re satisfied, you’re complacent.
Jams: Absolutely, and satisfaction, to me, is like a myth, it’s like we’re chasing the dragon constantly, literally, just trying to get to whatever kind of nebulous, changing, ephemeral thing that is just out of reach.
Bob: I think a lot of it is the discovery process, where you’re trying to figure things out, you might have this vision of what you want music to sound like or something to look like, and you start exploring all these different options, but within that, all these other problems start coming out and different paths show themselves, and there’s always, at the end of a project, way more questions to be answered. Like the most recent project that Jimmy and I worked on, from the constraints of the project itself, or all these other ideas that we couldn’t even fit into what we were working on…
Widows “On Lock”
As soon as you’re there, someone on the outside will consider it a finished product…but you’ve sort of only just begun.
Jams: Polishing a finished product is a matter of craft, it’s a mixture of learning to, “I want to leave it on the field and polish it up and be finished with that chapter,” and then also having…giving some kind of wisdom about the fact that you’re fighting a very long fight, playing a long game or something like that. And so you’re, of course, not going to nail everything. People who feel like they’ve made their masterwork, they go into crisis. I feel like, in a way, there’s a lot of speculation around why Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys took to bed, and part of it, everybody acts like the Beatles got his goat or something. But I think he did it, he made the record he wanted to make, and he didn’t have anything to say. In a lot of ways, it’s about having the wisdom to know that you’re playing a long game, and you shouldn’t be frustrated by more questions arising, you should actually save those, because that’s your survival resource—new bases you didn’t cover, new shit you didn’t touch on, that’s the bread and butter for any artist that’s trying to keep fluidly moving towards the future.
Are you in positions now where you’re completely self-sufficient off of music?
Jams: It’s not necessarily where we are, but in a lot of ways, where the music industry is. You have to be a lot more inventive. Taking that into account, yes, we’re in kind of a comfortable position, where we’re not really trying to chase market success, and not even like that’s a moral or ethical thing, but I think we have a lot more freedom right now. We don’t have the same immediate concerns as we’ve had on other records, but I think, in a way, you either are going to let that make you complacent or you’re going to exercise that freedom, and right now, I actually feel pretty good about the way that we’ve done that. We have enough constraints as it is, in terms of just being in different places, working in several different media, and we’re trying to put the language of rhythm and intonation and speech and stuff into one thing. We could be much more comfortable, but we’ve been in a lot more tighter spots than we are in now.
Personally, if I’m writing my own story, I’m going to make sure the costume the guy has to wear isn’t too hot. –Jams
As soon as you take something that was your hobby and pure fun and it has this business angle to it, there’s more pressure to be creative. What part of the spectrum are you on? What made you form Widows?
Jams: We’re fairly diverse guys, fairly adaptive people. We have our hands in a lot of pots, which I think makes it a lot easier to do what you want creatively. Maybe if we had more focus just on the short run of economic success, from that vantage, it’s maybe a step backwards to start over and reconceptualize what you’re doing, but creatively, there was no question, it wasn’t even a debate, really.
It’s like when you finish reading a book, you’re done, and you pick up a different one, it’s the exact same thing. We both knew that we had completed aesthetically what we wanted to do with [Brother Reade] and we knew that we still wanted to work together, but somehow we needed to reassess those parameters, and even just personally or psychologically, for us, this is how we dealt with that.
Bob: I was going to say, along the lines of having other sources of income besides your main project, it definitely frees you up to a large degree as far as feeling the need to make things a certain way. I think with what we’ve always done is created what we deem to be the correct thing at the time, the correct answer at the time, and I think now, the things that we’re exploring with the Widows project, I don’t know if we could explore them the same way if we had a burden of popularity on us.
Jams: In a lot of ways, that’s exactly what it’s after. It’s like you were saying about how two-dimensional this whole thing can get. I don’t have any gripe with anybody who is creating a lane, staying in it, album after album, delivering what you want, the same song and dance. But that’s just not our way. We would rather diversify, have a bunch of different projects and work going to keep ourselves alive, surviving, whatever. And all of our endeavors, we’d just let them be what they are, if we decided tomorrow to do something very typical and theatrical and reduced, then if that’s where it takes us, that’s where it takes us, there’s no hard and fast rule.
…there were a lot of years that we didn’t have a working relationship at all, and so I think in general, we tend to encourage and celebrate one another’s respective successes, and let the energy just flow back into the project. –Jams
It’s like the burden of somebody who creates that perfect character for themselves when they’re 23, in their inception, and they blow up, and for the rest of their lives, they have to be the Ultimate Warrior, Debbie Gibson…someone was talking to me about Samantha Fox the other day, and I was like, “What the hell is Samantha Fox doing now,” and I look on Samantha Fox’s website, and it’s like…some Geocities website type shit, she’s talking about a performance she had last week in France and how great it was. I’m just like, “Man, I’m glad I don’t have to get out of bed every day and be Samantha Fox still.”
The other example is somebody like Marilyn Manson, what if he doesn’t want to be Goth anymore? He doesn’t have the option, he didn’t give himself any kind of lateral motion. He nailed it and it worked really well, he became a phenomenon, but then it’s just…at what cost? Unless you’re crafty with it…it’s more you’re writing your own story, don’t write yourself into a corner. Personally, if I’m writing my own story, I’m going to make sure the costume the guy has to wear isn’t too hot.
Bob: And the end of the day, Glenn Danzig cannot collect My Little Pony statues.
Jams: But he does, though, he does collect them. Not trying to blow Glenn Danzig up, but his dream is to have My Little Ponies, he loves My Little Ponies, but he’s got to be all Glenn Danzig.
Bob: He’s got to be Danzig about it. That’s tough.
Jams: His fans would be disappointed if they knew that.
Bob: But nobody would be disappointed except maybe my girlfriend if I collected My Little Pony.
Jams: Yeah. People will be like, “Oh, that’s the guy with the My Little Ponies, it’s weird, but maybe he’s up to something.”
Bob: I don’t have the burden of the Misfits on my back.
Jams: I even think he could swing the Misfits…when he went straight Danzig, they got a little tougher, a little muscley-er, a little sleeveless-ier, and he was more prominent.
The change in the creative winds is what drives a lot of collaborations apart, one person feels it and the other doesn’t. It speaks to the symbiotic relationship you have, that you felt at the same time that it was time to start the Widows project. Tell me more about that decision and your relationship and where you wanted to go with Widows once you started it up.
Jams: I think one of the reasons that drift tends to occur is egos. We have a lucky thing in that we were good friends for a lot longer than we were playing music together. We played music at the beginning of our friendship, but there were a lot of years that we didn’t have a working relationship at all, and so I think in general, we tend to encourage and celebrate one another’s respective successes, and let the energy just flow back into the project.
And we do a lot of it outside of the studio, outside of the rehearsal space, kind of just building, talking, so we don’t isolate, and we know where each other is at and we can feed and flow off of that. So it’s not an accident that we both reached a conclusion together, it was more like we built the whole thing and summarized all the energy and decisions that we made up to that point, and if anything, that kind of cooperation or advanced mutualization of benefits, is exactly what our project is about.
The record we have now, I think, is if you took our old group and took all the drum cuts we made and we were just doing those instrumental drum recordings, we forced that back into the electronic group duo studio concept, but the last thing to expect from us would be that sound necessarily replicated over and over again. If anything, the concept of it is dynamism.
So then the name "Widows" implies moving on when a part or piece of you has died?
Bob: Obviously, a tie-in could definitely be made for something like that.
Jams: I had no idea until you said it, but yeah.
Bob: It’s not something that was even thought about when we made up the name.
Jams: I like your interpretation better than anyone’s, for sure. Definitely, yeah, the answer is yes.
If there’s more behind the name that you discussed and thought about, you’re pretty heady about your art, so I’d be curious to hear more of your thinking.
Jams: I don’t know, I’m actually thinking new things. I feel like if there’s one thing that we finally are getting down, it’s when to make a blind decision. In a way, a name is kind of like if you were making a tool that you knew you had to hold in your hand a whole lot, you’d really want it to have no rough edges, but it needs to do what it does, and in a way, I feel like we name things very intuitively, so it’s almost like a blind decision, you’re like, “Am I going to be all right saying this word for 10 years?” I’m not the type of guy to name a band like I’m naming a book. You wind up with a name like the Goo Goo Dolls. Lamentably, we’re a part of a rash of one-word nouns that are plural band names, but also I think it’s because we’re on our own wavelength enough to not know better, honestly.
Bob: There’s only so many functions of band names, anyway, as far is if you go phrases, ‘the,’ plural, you go animal, you go…there’s only so many conventions that have been stacked up until now, and I think when we originally came up with the name, it had nothing to do with even worrying about that, which was the beautiful part of it.
Jams: We were just like, “Man, we’re over this, what do we do next,” and we made a bunch of quick, blind decisions, the music was falling into place, that was all intuitive, everything was very intuitive and very fast. You wouldn’t know it, because we’re fairly thought-out kind of…we think a lot of things through, but I think you have to suspend that in a lot of ways when you’re doing creative things, and act out of instinct. I like your interpretation better than mine, for sure.
This is part one of our two part interview with Widows. Stay tuned for part two in a few days...
“Zoom” Mixtape (download for free here)