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Living in An Escapist's Paradise

11 September 2019, 16:33

Jerkcurb's debut album is an escapist’s paradise. He tells Sean Kerwick how his obsession with shopping malls and a reimagined history of consumerism helped shape it.

When the all-consuming heatwave hit the UK in late July, Jacob Read jumped on the opportunity to listen to his forthcoming debut album as Jerkcurb in full. “Listening to my own album and falling asleep, but in a nice melting depressed way,” he tweeted out.

Read cites the drowsy mental state brought on by the conditions of a heatwave as the perfect way to absorb the ethereal, dream-like qualities of the album entitled Air Con Eden. “You’re conscious but you’re kind of not conscious,” he explains. “You’re taking it in but the mindset you’re in can really change how you listen to music. It’s not the kind of album I want people to play at a party with loads of people around; it’d sound really shit.”

Since 2016, Read has been drip-feeding a run of singles under the moniker Jerkcurb through Handsome Dad records. The songs glimmer in stark contrast to the circles Read is most closely associated with - he grew up next door to Archy Marshall, better known as King Krule, who he frequently collaborates with, and also leads up the band Horsey; beholden to a truly wild, off-kilter sound which pairs accomplished musicianship with a wicked sense of humour.

Instead, Jerkcurb’s output references crooners of the ‘50s and vocal jazz performers such as Peggy Lee, Julie London and Chet Baker. Although it may seem like a throwback sound in practice, Read manages to make it feel entirely the opposite of that, mainly because his reference points lounge in a thick sheen of otherworldly production illustrated by guitar tremolos and instrumentals that patiently knock along at what seems like a warped 0.5x speed.

This dichotomy provides the sensation one might find themselves experiencing upon entering a parallel universe; everything feels simultaneously familiar and unknown. Opener “Shadowshow” acquaints the listener with this woozy world - “I soon forgot about myself and soon forgot about all things,” Read sings in his gravitational baritone pulling the listener into his universe in a rising tide of spaghetti-western guitars and dreamy female vocal harmonies.

I meet Read in the grade II listed Victorian Conservatory at the Horniman Museum in South East London. He’s examining some prints that he’s readying to release alongside his debut album. He turns his head as he weighs up the quality of the resulting images he’s been back and forth with his label on for a few weeks.

“The image was so pixelated for ages so I had to keep redoing it,” he explains.

"It’s not the kind of album I want people to play at a party with loads of people around; it’d sound really shit.”

Read is responsible for every facet of Jerkcurb from the balance of the mix to the curve of the bridge he painted on Air Con Eden’s cover. Rejecting an advance from his label, he decided to self-fund the project sustaining his job as an animator and artist-for-hire to pay for studio sessions which, in turn, gave him full creative control.

“I didn’t really see the point in owing loads of money to the label,” he points out. “You can do so much on your own”. He especially enjoys his technical painting sideline career as it heavily reduces his screen time which tallies up quite significantly as both an animator and self-produced musician. “You have infinite ways you can approach art on screen which is good and bad - I find that restricting myself is where the good stuff is at.”

Alongside the distinctive baritone and sound Read channels in his recordings as Jerkcurb, he also possesses a unique flair with the brush stroke. His artwork for Jerckcurb has a radiant aura as he paints bright, cartoonish colours on black backgrounds which often depict figures of a forgotten Americana cavorting in basements, bars and - believe it or not - shopping malls; a concept which has tailed Read’s imagination for a long time.

We queue up for a coffee in the museum’s cafe rife with the loud giddiness of kids in the first week of their summer holidays. “Sorry this is a pretty random place,“ he says wincing at the shrieks from a nearby toddler.”It’s really great here though, I grew up down the road and still come here all the time.”

Read nurtured his creative outlets in the spirited arts scene of South East London - although it seems like the region’s artistic credentials have only been put on the map in recent years, he professes it’s always been that way. “It’s only recently been recognised. When I was 12, there were great bands and a real community and that has never disappeared,” he says. “Whether it’s the same people or not, there’s always been a thriving community between musicians in South East London. Back in the day we could only get gigs booked in Camden off of Myspace but we’d be too young to play. We were on the bill so we were allowed a pass but then none of our friends were. There’s a couple of venues which were the exception - The Ivy House and Montague Arms always hosted new bands. That’s the worry with the area getting too popular, the whole gentrification thing - loads of places are going to close down and the communities will dissolve with it.”

"There’s always been a thriving community between musicians in South East London. That’s the worry with the area getting too popular - loads of places are going to close down and the communities will dissolve with it.”

Read sits at the centre of a Venn-diagram of two vastly opposing musical outlets - Jerkcurb and his band Horsey - both allow him to exercise different aspects of his artistry; Jerkcurb is a much calmer, more personal affair whereas Horsey presents the ideal conditions to let his freak flag fly.

“Weirdly the Horsey stuff actually came first - I went to school with those guys. It’s all about experimenting and trying to enjoy ourselves,” he smiles. “There were a lot of indie bands doing quite sensible stuff and we wanted to do something that was a little bit more abrasive - we got a real kick out of being young and being kind of shit. People didn’t really know how to react - it was sort of a weird smugness where you get a kick out of being consciously obtuse and people are like ‘We don’t really know what this is’. But we were kind of shit and a bit immature to really know what we were doing. We reformed a few times under different names and Horsey’s just the latest incarnation of the same sort of band with me, Theo and Jack.

“Jerkcurb was just me wanting to do something a bit more personal, quiet and more reflective to explore home recordings. I don’t ever feel like I have to make a really abrasive sounding Jerkcurb song because it’s just not what it is. It’s quite nice to focus on exploring that sort of style. I feel like everybody should be in multiple bands or have different creative outlets.” He pauses. “Although saying that, you never really get anywhere because you don’t focus on anything.”

Read takes pleasure in living a multi-faceted artistic life, not wanting to be solely boxed in as an illustrator, animator or musician exclusively. It’s also a road that his parents tread alongside him having done part-time work and different artistic projects for most of their lives. “It’s quite a cathartic thing in a way,” he says. “But it could also be down to me being unwilling to commit and more of a psychological problem [laughs].”

Being the offspring of a transatlantic coupling, Read spent a lot of time in New York in his youth visiting family in the summer holidays. One place he keeps close to his heart from his travels to the states is Aquarena Springs in Texas, so much so that he’s written a song about it on Air Con Eden. “It’s this really amazing marine resort in Texas from the ‘50s which had these underwater clowns and ‘mermaids’ performing in its heyday. The video I’m making at the moment for the song is inspired by a lot of the imagery.” He loads up a few shots from the video which features a terrifying sub-aquatic clown he’s christened Glurpo. “We made a miniature shopping mall - each shot is a different model of a miniature thing,” he says, once again touching on his obsession with retail outlets.

“It all started because I went to Bluewater once and I got really obsessed with the idea that there’s this culture that exists within this thing - it’s like a theme park,” he recalls. “You look around and it sort of looks like Roman architecture and sculpture - it’s got this religious feeling. I wrote this thesis on shopping malls for my Animation course at Kingston University - no one told me to do that and nobody understood why I did. All my teachers were like ‘why are you writing about shopping malls?’

“I’m really interested in fake culture. Everything is fake culture in a way - everything is gentrified - especially with Brexit, all this nationalism; the idea of how segregated we are and working out what is or isn’t real.”

“I was thinking about the concept and completed drawings inspired by the architecture - I started to think about the way they were lit and designed to confuse people; the way that people would go in and be hit by a sort of sensory overload, forget what they went there to do and then buy loads of stuff. Muzak was a big influence as well - elevator music or the sort of thing you might hear as background noise in shopping malls - a lot of it is exotica music that was made in the ‘50s; an American construction of Polynesian music from artists like Les Baxter.”

You can hear this inspiration sizzling in the blueprints of “Somerton Beach” as its Hawaiian-style guitar shimmers against a patter of Latin percussion. “I’m really interested in fake culture. Everything is fake culture in a way - everything is gentrified - especially with Brexit, all this nationalism; the idea of how segregated we are and working out what is or isn’t real.”

The architect Victor Gruen, originally an Austrian-Jewish immigrant who moved to the US without a penny to his name, is credited as the creator of the modern-day shopping mall. Infatuated with the idea that man is at war with nature, he foresaw the only way mankind surviving would be to artificially plant nature. Gruen started building eco-environments in the ‘50s with this in mind as he constructed greenhouse-style structures filled with plants, trees, and birds. It enjoyed an innocent existence until the concept was bastardised by corporations after the souvenir shops within Gruen’s establishments became overwhelmingly successful.

“Then the whole retail thing overtook,” Read sighs. “There’s this interview in 1978 just before Gruen died where he said he was embarrassed that he invented the shopping mall and thought he was responsible for capitalism. It was around the same time when people like J. G. Ballard and all this dystopian fiction referenced consumerism. I guess Air Con Eden is created with those early days in mind - those first Utopian shopping malls. Utopia is a theme throughout the album because, for me, the music is escapism. It’s almost fictitious in a way and it imagines a sort of world where ‘what if capitalism went a different way? What if we went back to the end of World War II where everybody’s filled with optimism? What happens if you take that headspace?’”

Both “Wishbones” and “Night On Earth” on the record ooze with post-war romanticism - the sort of songs that would soundtrack the doe-eyed waltz between two lovers at the end of the night. Read traces his obsession with ‘50s culture back to his first viewing of Stand By Me as a child which spurred on a big Elvis Presley phase by the time he was 14. He frequently makes the pilgrimage back to yesteryear via the rabbit hole of YouTube and shares forgotten gems to his Twitter feed which has become a cornucopia of good music recommendations.

“I hate computer algorithms so I’m really reluctant to click the next suggested thing but often when it catches me off guard, I’m like ‘That’s really good’ and I go with it. I still don’t like the idea of the computer telling you what kind of music you should be listening to but then again, how the hell do you find music?”

"I still don’t like the idea of the computer telling you what kind of music you should be listening to but then again, how the hell do you find music?”

This dichotomy concerning algorithms is a common view shared among many but no matter how much Read may detest it, at some point last year an algorithm served Jerkcurb’s music to none other than Jaden Smith who added the album’s epic closing track “Night On Earth” to a 10-song Apple Music playlist entitled Songs For Mother Earth. “I was like ‘I swear that guy’s famous!’” he laughs. “I received the Twitter notification when I was walking around Horniman actually. Maybe the reason I keep coming back here is because of that moment - I associate it with a good vibe.”

Algorithms have also indirectly served as a source of inspiration for the video accompanying “Timelapse Tulip”. “We used this technology called photogrammetry which is used a lot in Google Maps. You essentially take hundreds of photos of a particular place, then the computer creates a 3D version of it but it always gets it wrong because it’s an algorithm - and that’s where I think it gets really interesting; all of those little mistakes. I was interested in making it look vaguely from another era, not only for it to fit in aesthetically with my stuff but also to fuse new technology with something that looks a bit dated. It sort of looks like a PS2 game - like L.A Noire on a really bad console.”

Like many of us, Read wrestles with his attention span and instant access to infinite online materials. In his case, he often loses hours watching video game walkthroughs but for every negative, there’s a positive that stretches his conflicted relationship with the internet further; as without it he’d be in the dark on the obscure concepts which have enlightened his imagination such as the history of shopping malls.

“I show stuff to my parents all the time and they’re always like ‘How did I not know about this at the time’,” he says. “I always thought my Dad was really knowledgeable about art but I’m often educating him about stuff I’ve found. I’d be like 'You were there - you lived in New York then! Why don’t you know about this?’ Then I think about the next generation - what will happen then? If you look at a band like Black MIDI - I think they’re only about 20 but they sound like they’ve lived through about 30 years of progressive rock or math-rock, there’s such a disparate influence at play. They’re definitely a post-internet band. Everything is to a certain extent, especially rap and stuff like that.”

Despite teetering on the positive and negative sides of internet culture, Read does remain romantic about having something tangible to soak in; which is one of the many reasons why he finds himself stalking the corridors of the Horniman Museum so often. ”There’s a beautiful library which you have to book out,” he says pointing at the gorgeous structure. “It’s my favourite library in South London but it’s only open for one Sunday a month. There are these amazing anthropology books from the ‘40s, it contains the sort of books you can’t find anywhere else. I’m trying to find an inspiration that isn’t every day.”

"I was interested in making [the video] look vaguely from another era, not only for it to fit in aesthetically with my stuff but also to fuse new technology with something that looks a bit dated."

Read acknowledges that there are some crossovers between his various creative outlets. In some cases, his music and illustrations are indebted to one another. “If I’m writing a song, it will stay as a song until I need some other inspiration, then I’ll look at some pictures or try and read something or try and get something visual behind it. The same with if I’m doing a drawing or something, maybe I’ll try and think of some music, make a playlist which fits with that sort of thing. Everything is inspired by something specific - whether it’s a film, book, images or a postcard - I tend to base everything on some moment of inspiration.”

As we descend into the bowels of the museum to a room filled with an assortment of keyboard instruments, Read reflects on the impending deadline for his new video “Aquarena Springs” which he’s overseeing independently. “It’s definitely the most ambitious thing I’ve ever attempted,” he says in a tone squeezed between excitement and pressure. “Not only is every single shot fake, but it’s tiny - we’ve made everything from scratch and spent two months doing it so far. I assembled a team of people who were good at 3D design, I rented this studio and just sort of prayed that everybody would get along.”

Venturing further into the museum, we enter a space filled with the clattering sound of kids nonsensically hammering the range of percussive instruments scattered across the floor.

“One of my fears is that time is going by way too quickly,” he ponders. “Quite a lot of the songs are about time whether it’s about the past, present or future. When you get to 27, you want to be in the headspace of a six-year-old. I miss being carefree - I genuinely had a really happy childhood. I enjoyed exploring the world rather than feeling formed by what it actually is. Society does something to you. I think music or any kind of art is a great form of escapism.”

Moments on the album feel particularly indicative of somebody who relishes going uninterrupted by the outside world. “I’ll be in my air-conditioned eden where the seasons never change'' goes the title-track’s chorus; both a nod to a dystopian future sizzled by global warming and the artistic concept he’s receded into as an escape for the past few years.

Read stops beside a series of tubes bursting up from the ground in the museum’s instrument room. He picks up a pair of flip-flops attached to the device and whacks out a tone-perfect recreation of the bassline that underpins New Order’s “Blue Monday”.

“That’s why I ended up making art and music really,” he says tossing the flip-flops aside laughing. “To get back to that childhood state of exploring.”

Air Con Eden is out this Friday on Handsome Dad records.
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