interview with Jean Smith of Mecca Normal
The New Puritan ReView;
This is the raw, pre-edited, conversation / interview.
Another part of the process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.
Would you share a bit of the history of how Mecca Normal came to be?
Dave and I met about ten years ago. We were working in the same place - in a newspaper office, we were both doing production work. Dave had been in a band before, and I hadn't, and we started hanging out and going to some shows, and we just kind of felt that it might be more fun to make our own music rather than always watching other people do it. So we got this garage together with some friends and just started playing a lot, and we recorded everything we did on a really cheesy tape recorder and listened to it, and - you know, the whole process was the fun part.
We didn't really plan it to be: "we must make this, and then we will fit into this format, and then we will proceed to attain these certain goals." It was nothing like that, we just were enjoying playing. We did our first show at the Smiling Buddha, we opened for D.O.A. in Vancouver, and people seemed to dislike us enough that we wanted to continue. We more or less thought that we were a part of that whole scene. We had been going to see hardcore shows and stuff, so we thought, let's do our own punk rock hardcore thing, but people really didn't like it much. They didn't like the instrumentation, just the one guitar, and they certainly didn't like me yelling at them, so we kind of cleared rooms pretty successfully back then.
What we actually did at that point was put out an LP. We were recording our stuff on four track cassette at that point just at practice spaces and some of the songs on that first LP were... Dave just started playing guitar - I didn't know what he was playing, I don't think he had worked anything out really, and I just started to sing whatever was on my mind. We used those original first-time-through songs on the LP that we put out on our own label, Smarten Up Records. We made 500 copies of those and mainly sent them out to radio stations and a few publications. We never did figure out how to successfully distribute these things. Then we went on a tour back to Montreal, Ottawa, and came back from that and we went down the coast in a bus, doing the "Black Wedge" tour, which has happened four or five times since that first time in 1986. It was a collective thing with musicians, poets, other kind of acts.
When did you decide to start doing spoken word performances?
Well, when Dave breaks a string, I do a solo thing. I do one of the songs and he changes the string, so it's under pressure that I do that. Then we did a tour to England, and I ended up living there for five months after Dave went off traveling, and I got involved with some poets who were doing a workshop thing once a week. So, I pretty much had to earn a living to pay the rent, and I was on my own, so I did a lot of solo readings over there and got paid for that. Then I started doing my own writing workshop. I graduated from high school but I haven't gone to college or anything, but I was teaching other people how to write, loosely speaking. It was a women's writing workshop, I was just kind of revealing my process of writing. When I do the spoken word thing I'm more or less relying on my influences as a singer. I don't read off a page or anything, so that's how that came about, really.
When you were teaching writing were you more concerned with the process of technical writing or actually drawing from personal experiences and learning how to communicate?
Mostly breaking down all the kinds of barriers that people have either made themselves, or the kind of negative things that prevent people from being able to speak out - whether it's writing or reading out loud or singing. That's my main concern, is that people talk about or communicate their true experiences. I was mainly just being supportive of what people did come with and maybe saying certain ideas were maybe more clichés than they needed to be, and what were their experiences and what did they feel about things and how they're making that clear, are we all getting the idea of what they're trying to get across. It was not so much formal grammar or looking at famous poets and what they do, it was pretty much just trying to get regular people to be able to communicate.
Was it always there for you, do you think, or somewhere along the way did it become a conscious decision to start dealing with issues such as gender?
I think that's really why I started to write anything, was certain anger in me about inequalities, whether it's between men and women or all sorts of certain levels of power or government. There's things that I think are still worth communicating. I'm opening up some possibilities maybe for different ways of behaving or organizing just our own communities. Our social structure now is so heavily reliant on hierarchies; what about people just organizing their workplace, amongst themselves or whatever needs to be done - day care, whatever. I guess Dave and I are kind of reflective of that; we've kind of decided to some thing that is a little bit different and kind of has clarified for me that there are lots of other ways to do things, that everything doesn't have to be by the real format existence.
Do you have any way of knowing if you've been able to get your points across to people that your music is heard by?
Yeah, I've talked to a lot of people either about the records or about a performance or whatever, and people are pretty supportive and say that they got something specific that related to their life out of what I've put out there. It's not some big contrived thing that Dave and I do, it's mainly that we're now pretty comfortable being on stage, and taking about pretty basic things. Everybody's got problems I think dealing with other people, whether it's your neighbor or at work or what I tend to deal with more are relationships between men and women, so I think there are universal elements to it. Maybe some people will dislike it, and maybe they might have to look at why they dislike it, what bothers them about it, what irritates them about me being aggressive on stage. Other people get sort of a kick out of it, seeing a woman let loose and saying a few things.
Dave seems to be the silent partner in this, does he ever take a turn at being the spokesperson?
I think he underlines, really. We share a lot of the same ideas and talk a lot about the world and people. I use words, which are tending to be more literal than guitar words, but he gets on radio and talks in interviews and that kind of thing. He's basically the person—or one of the people—who introduced a lot of feminist ideas to me and has been really supportive of me and my singing, saying, "just belt it out, say what needs to be said", and he's still like that with all sorts of other people who are maybe trying to do things or feel a little insecure or whatever. He's just right in there, a very supportive person. I met Dave when I was twenty-one - now I'm thirty-two - and I was very surprised that there weren't more men like him. I say really rash things, like, "men are such assholes", and he's not the kind of defensive male that I guess I've met a million times since I was twenty-one. It would help if men could see their role in the kind of power structure that exists, and rather than denying it or wanting to change things around... all women are sexist too... there is a social system that is in place now that is pretty objectionable, and I think that as long as there's that animosity between individuals, it sure makes it difficult to feel free to speak out about it, being female. I don't really know why men wanna fucking support this particular thing, other than the classic reason is that it's mainly to their advantage to support a power structure that subordinates women.
Have you found any effective methods of expressing these ideas other than through anger?
I guess a lot can come out from anger, if people can be articulate in their anger, expressing what is the problem. Like the other night, in Eugene, we did a show and the opening band had this song that they kind of introduced as "nonsense", just "our fun song", and they proceeded to sing in low sultry voice about putting a woman's head in a blender and turning it on and how she screamed and how they then poured themselves a "bloody mary". I was just burning mad—it was a physical reaction, my heart was pounding—and they stopped, and I yelled out "you guys are full of shit!", and everyone's looking at me; it's not really acceptable that the headlining band is making judgment on these young guys, right? That's why I do this, because I'm angry at things like that, and I'm gonna get up there and have my say, or I'm gonna say it when it happens, you know?
A lot of the "alternative" contingent seems so obsessed with morbidity and violent imagery, where do you start to draw the lines?
I think we are all involved in sexism, we live in a completely sexist society. I don't exclude myself when the label of sexism falls. I think we all have that in us, and who cares what the label is anyway? I don't get involved with a whole bunch of bands, to tell you the truth. I do other things when I'm at home, and I come out on tour and end up meeting a lot of people at shows - probably more of the people who respond to us positively than negatively. If you don't necessarily like the band you don't always carry it further and express that. People are more inclined to say positive things when they come up. There's a million problems, I don't feel an urge to comment on all of them really that go on within alternative music, and my scope isn't just what's going on in alternative music and how can I make an impact within that. I really deal more with the general population. I didn't even know this whole music underground or college radio existed when I started doing these songs. I had not seen a lot of bands, I feel like every step of the way we just initiated our own kind of reason for doing things.
Had you given much thought to releasing records and marketing yourselves?
No, not at all. It just all happened from nothing, practically, just from meeting someone, exchanging ideas. Politically, at that point - I don't know if you're aware of the Vancouver 5; they were five people, two women, three men who who arrested and charged with various acts of - direct action, basically. There was a cruise missile guidance system plant in Eastern Canada that was bombed, there was a hydro-electric station on Vancouver that was bombed because it was an environmental hazard, and there were pornography stores that were burned or bombed, and there were people saying that they weren't that they weren't going to necessarily rely on the government to make the decisions for what was positive for society, so they more or less took things into their own hands. So that was a regular conversation just in the general population - these young people who felt so strongly about things that they had actually decided to do something. One of those people was in The Subhumans, from Vancouver - one of the people that was arrested, I should say.
So that was just kind of general talk, about whether this was acceptable, or what elements were and weren't. It just kind of all came up at once, a lot of issues about censorship, pornography, and that type of thing. I became immediately aware, all at once. I decided to make some music. So more than that we wanted to be in a band and do all the things that bands do like tour and have fans and make records, we had some things to say and we needed a way to say them. Maybe it could have been film, or theater or whatever, but this is what it's turned out to be. Whereas now, if I had been so involved in all this underground music and known this band and that band and what I liked and didn't like, I don't know if I would feel the urge to participate in this whole spectrum - but it's like we started and then found it existed. We also end up doing things like the poetry readings and cafés, and various benefits that are not related to underground music - whatever seems appropriate to partake in. We're not exclusive to "the music scene".
Although you’ve examined various levels of sexuality, it occurs to me that you’ve not made much of an issue out of pornography in your work.
I guess everybody wants to have their point of what they think is acceptable or offensive to themselves, or what they call erotic, or what they call pornographic. I don't have a little package sentence that explains that. I guess it might be easier if I did, but I don't. It interests me a great deal, but I don't want to say that people shouldn't be aroused by this or... it's more that because people are - why are they? Why do we have things that other people would consider perverse or offensive? Why does that exist in the first place? Is that what a sociologist would call natural, or is it because of the conditions that we've created within our culture? I think those elements interest me more than, "this is pornographic, this is erotic".
Again, I feel pretty much like I'm a product of this society, and I don't feel like a very pure or virtuous person in my own dealings with people, within relationships, or that I have the one and only way down. I feel like because I make statements at all it can tend to sound dogmatic, that there's some inclination for people to believe that I have a package of ideas, and other people then want to believe in that package and it all just dissipates into people trying to find something that they can believe in, what should they believe, and where do they draw their lines based on where other people draw their lines. Because I say I'm a feminist or an anarchist, people want to say why do you use those labels, or what does that mean? Do you want to use violence, or do you think women are better than men, are you against sex, or do you hate men?
I don't see where anyone could find any hatred of men anywhere in your work.
I like men quite a bit [laughing], I just have a hard time dealing with some of them.
It might be debated as to whether the initial attraction for people in relationships isn't physical, before they actually start to find out more about one another.
See I'm not even clear about that. I feel like the more relationships I go through, I start to feel like I'm involved more psychologically in finding people who fulfill some strange repetitive element that I've created or have gone through—whatever all that business is—and more looking at why do I end up with up people who are like this, a particular thing. I see these characteristics again and again. Most of them seem to fall into repeating negative patterns, but that's becoming a little bit clearer. I'm wondering why all of that goes, what sort of things have been stored up within me, what particular psychological things happened. It's not so much that this guy has a certain type of build or haircut or whatever, it seems to be that I find just enough about them to sense something that I'm not even consciously aware of, that I will pursue. I can't really even draw a pattern of how that happens, or what things and why, I need or find out from people. I tend to not be interested in really—my boyfriend's gonna kill me if he reads this—what I think that I need from somebody intellectually, I don't really end up with in a relationship anyway.
It does seem to be really a much bigger issue than most of us can begin to comprehend, coming from several vantage points.
I always have this problem with, "okay, I'm not exactly on a standardized course." I don't really work—my work is writing, reading, making music, touring around, communicating with a lot of people—that's what I do, that's what I love to do. So, when I end up trying to evaluate the people that I'm with in relationships, I can't really do it in a normal way, like, they have this type of a job, or they're similar to me. There's no kind of standardized method to define that person. I think a lot of people have a list or an idea of what the person must do, or behave like. If you want to deny a lot of standards within our system, then it becomes difficult to make choices, because you no longer have that criterion. If you're going to abandon it, what do you replace it with? I think that's actually a scary point for a lot of people in their desire to create if you want to put down or analyze our whole culture and say a lot of it isn't very good. It's a very scary thing to have to come up with something to replace it with.
Have you done much writing apart from your lyrics?
Yeah, my novel is coming out in the spring. I put together two handmade books that had limited distribution—I've just given them away to people—and they will be included in this perfect bound novel. Dave's gonna publish it and we're gonna go on the road with that, and do readings in bookstores in the afternoon and then in the evening do the Mecca Normal rock show type thing, and incorporate the two things. I do a lot of editing with white out and scissors and a black felt tip pen. I pretty much had to figure out how to write on my own - I didn't go to college, let's put it that way. I want it to be understandable, in the usual way that you can read a sentence, and not be confused about what the sentence is supposed to do. Still, it's an unusual piece of writing, it's pretty experimental.
It strikes me that reading your lyrics present them in a very different context than hearing you perform them as songs.
I think that people read less than they go to rock shows - that group of people, but then there's a whole other world of printed word.
Your lyrics intertwine with the music in such a way that they can function as two entirely separate mediums.
Yeah pretty much. It [the new book]'s called, I Can Hear Me Fine. It's the name of the last single too. There are different women characters whose personalities aren't exactly ever pinned down to a particular thing, so they don't really interact in any way, so that she's of this type and she's of that type, so obviously this will follow. You're kind of kept a little unbalanced through the whole thing as to why things are happening. It's surreal, and then it jumps to autographical stuff, time periods all kind of mish-mashed together.
© J. Free; 1991
photos of Mecca Normal from the North Shore Surf Club, and Jean Smith from the Capitol Theater and Smithfield Cafe; at the International Pop Underground convention in Olympia, WA © J. Free; 1991