Jon Bernson with Scott Pinkmountain

Jon Bernson of Exray's
Songwriter Jon Bernson of Exray's. Photo © Kata Rokkar/Shawn Robbins.

Jon Bernson formed the band Ray’s Vast Basement in 1997 as a one-man 4-track cassette project while living in Point Reyes, California. The early albums were an exploration of an imaginary town called Drakesville. Bernson’s “musical fiction” told stories of the history of this old California coastal town through richly arranged acoustic music with a strong Americana influence. Recently, Bernson formed Exray’s, a new band with a distinctly different sound, with Michael Falsetto-Mapp and Jason Kick. Exray’s released a cassette EP called Ammunition Teeth in October 2010 and a self-titled LP in February 2011, one of whose songs appeared in David Fincher’s film The Social Network. Exray’s third album, Trust a Robot, was released in June 2012. Bernson is also one half of Window Twins, a collaboration with Tim Cohen. This interview is part of an ongoing collection of interviews with Indie Rock songwriters focusing on lyric writing, creative process, and lyrics as literary genre and was conducted by telephone.

Scott Pinkmountain: Let’s start by talking about the Drakesville Project. What inspired those early Ray’s Vast Basement records?

Jon Bernson: It was an intuitive process of discovery. I knew I wanted to combine mediums to explore the past. For me, Drakesville ended up creating a sense of place and a past that had deeper roots than what I had access to growing up.

I think it’s a pretty typical experience for Americans to be disconnected from their roots, to be disconnected from a sense of place. By exploring the depth of one small place I gained an understanding of what it means to be connected to the past. That act carries through to now. It can’t replace actually coming from a culture that values the past and values their traditions, but it helps. I don’t feel like I need to do that very much anymore because it filled some void well enough that I can move on.

SP:  Do you feel like you come from Drakesville?

JB:  I don’t. I was never delusional to where it felt like I was really from there, or lived there in a past life. It was about familiarizing myself with a deeper past, like hundreds of years of history.

SP:  But you were essentially back-fictionalizing an autobiography?

JB:  Exactly. And I went about it in an extremely unmethodical way. [Laughs.] When I was living in Point Reyes, I would go to the library or go to bookstores and look at books to find pictures that intrigued me. I’d cut them out, Xerox them and keep re-Xeroxing them until I found crops that I liked. I assembled hundreds of these pictures. I’d cut out pieces of stories that I read, make mix-tapes of music I was listening to that was based on traditional American influences. I wanted to explore this idea from a lot of different angles. I wanted to incorporate storytelling, music, fiction and drama all into one performance.

It became a loose one-man show with many people. I would do monologues interspersed with songs, but people would come up and join me for a song or a scene.

I took a year off from that and played music shows, then did a second round of multi-media shows which were fully interactive where I set up an environment. I wanted people to have the experience of visiting Ray’s Vast Basement in 1929 during the speakeasy era. So I sent out invitations, asked people to come in costume, and they did. I had a cast of about 20 people who were portraying the characters and the history and the mythology of Drakesville. They interacted with the audience. We staged a fight, a fortuneteller, various things that happened in the middle of the party. Then there was a performance in the second half that was similar to the original shows that I did.

SP:  How did it feel to occupy the world that you essentially invented for yourself?

JB:  It was revelatory.

SP:  In what way?

JB:  On one level it was pretty horrifying, because I was really stressed out. There were so many things to coordinate and I was directing as well as performing in it. It was very heavy to realize something so intricate and big and involved that included so many people. To see it come to fruition was overwhelming.

SP:  Do you feel like through the creative process in general, what we’re essentially doing is establishing a home for ourselves in the context of the work?

JB:  For me that’s a really important part of it.

SP:  Bringing 20 people into your work engenders actual relationships in the world. Community. In taking the solitary literary endeavor of fiction, and exploding it into a multimedia context, were you attempting to combat the isolation of fiction writing?

JB:  I don’t think that was the motivation, but I did enjoy that aspect to it. I have a kind of push/pull relationship with collaboration. I really like exchanging creative ideas with people. At the same time, I feel like the solitude of writing is equally important to me. I don’t think I could only do one or the other.

SP:  Is that why you didn’t just write Drakesville as a book?

JB:  I love books but I know and understand what a book is. I wanted to make something that I didn’t understand. I called it “musical fiction,” but even that is an oversimplified term. I wanted to make something that mirrored my experience in the world, which is a multi-media, multi-sensory experience; to be alive.

SP:  You say you know what a book is. What is a book?

JB:  A book can’t be put into words, Scott. [Laughter.]

SP:  That’s a pretty good answer. But all art has limitations ultimately in terms of representing or expressing the life experience. I’m just curious what your specific frustrations were with the written word and/or music that pushed you to try to move beyond either medium on its own.

JB:  I don’t think I was motivated by frustrations or limitations of any particular medium. That’s just what came to me. You know, people ask you what you do and you say, “I’m a musician,” or, “I’m a songwriter.” “I’m this, I’m that.” You say those things so that people will understand you but I don’t walk around everyday and feel like I’m a musician, or I’m a writer, or I’m a teacher or I’m a husband. I’m a person, [Laughs] trying to make my way and trying to understand the world. Art, to me, has a lot to do with trying to express things that I can’t express in any other way. If I could have expressed these things by going out and having a drink with you, then I never would have done them, right? I’m trying to get a handle on something that can’t be grasped and art helps me to understand it better.

SP:  Where do you think the compulsion to express comes from, versus just experiencing life and passing through it?

JB:  I think we hide a lot of things from ourselves. I certainly do. Working on art is a way that I can interact with those things. I get to share them or try to either overcome them, exist alongside them, or just rid myself of them. [Laughs.]

SP:  How does autobiography factor into your work, given that you generally avoid a personal confessional style or directly relating, at least I think, personal experiences from your life through your songs.

JB:  I look at it kind of like the disclaimer they put into films. They always say any resemblance to any real people is not true.

SP:  Strictly coincidental.

JB:  Yeah. But of course it’s not. [Both laugh.]

SP:  So why bother to dress it up or alter it?

JB:  Sometimes because situations and people outside ourselves inspire us. Or we’ll project our own emotional life onto other people and situations, so when we write about them we’re really writing about ourselves.

I also do see some of my work as personally confessional. I like to work from lots of different angles. My earlier work had this historical bent to it, but my most recent records are 100% about my life.

SP:  As a listener, I don’t hear that on the new record. I’m not challenging the truth of your statement, I guess I’m more asking, do you expect the listener to get that, or is it purely your experience of it?

JB:  The line in the fourth song on that record, Hesitation, is:

the world became a factory
sky was overdrawn
murals on florida street
sidewalks beneath me
will you read the writing
when the future meets a wall?
or drive across the bridges? everything you think
you thought you knew

That’s the way I talk to myself when I’m having an existential dilemma or a crisis or a meltdown. It’s not under my control to be able to think about whether a listener is able to get exactly what I’m feeling when I sing that. I just hope that they do.

Video for "Hesitation" by Exray's

SP:  Your previous records as Ray’s Vast Basement had a lot of narrative storytelling in the songwriting, and the records of Exray’s seemed to have moved away from that toward greater abstraction. Is there a specific reason for the change?

JB:  I’m definitely referencing traditional storytelling a lot less in the newer songs that I’m writing. One of the reasons is that my environment is a chaotic, fragmented and beautiful urban environment, and I don’t experience life in nearly as linear a way as I used to. When I was living in a rural environment, it felt like the passage of a day had a natural progression. Living in an urban environment – day and night, up and down, sea level, sky level, underground levels, windowless levels, airless levels, lightless levels – it’s a lot more fragmented. So I’ve just found that the way I express myself reflects that more and more.

SP:  Did you have a specific sound in mind to express that experience or did you just get into the studio and start experimenting as Exray’s?

JB:  Half and half. I knew that I wanted the music to be more modern. That’s a stupid word. I wanted it to be more urban. I didn’t know how to do that. That’s my environment now. That’s the soundtrack for my life. To understand it and to use it and to create with it took a lot of experimenting.

SP:  What you were saying a minute ago about reflecting or expressing your urban experience seems almost like the opposite of what you were using art for ten, fifteen years ago; to create the experience that you wanted to have.

JB:  I wouldn’t look at it that way because I’m not just reflecting every experience I have. I’m selecting inspired moments that need to be expressed from my everyday life.

SP:  How come the theatrical component is less of a presence in your work now? Is that just purely circumstantial?

JB:  There are theatrical plans in the works for my new band, Exray’s. We’ve released one song so far, “Hesitation,” that has a video to go with it. That part of me hasn’t gone away, but now I feel like it should come later, as opposed to the other way around. I’ve also got a bunch of soundtracks for plays and have worked on some films too. It‘s definitely still happening, it’s just not as integrated in my work that’s available for people to see all in one spot right now.

SP:  Can you talk some about the process of revision or editing? I think of you as someone who has a strong editing ethos. You’ve talked to me about letting things get cold and that’s when you can really start to work on them.

JB:  I feel a little bit less like I have a philosophy now. Sometimes becoming sick of things gives me the perspective I need to work on them in a way that makes them all that they’re capable of being. And at the same time, I’m also starting to value the opposite, being more physical about how I make music. Putting one brick on top of another, and if the brick holds the one above it then it’s good enough and I move on.

I’m learning to trust my intuition about when it’s best to put it in the drawer and come back to it later, and when it’s really important to be urgent and not let that moment slip by.

SP:  How is this actually manifesting your work?

JB:  One big change is that I did a lot of research in my earlier work, and in my newer work, I’m trying to let my body do more of the narration.

SP:  What does that mean?

JB:  I’ll have a song demo’d or even recorded, then I’ll essentially free-style over the song and just keep doing it until I like it. So the words are coming from what my mouth and body want to express in the pressure of that particular moment on that particular day.

There’s something really liberating about it and also something very uncomfortable. I don’t just freestyle and keep the first take. I don’t release anything until I’m happy with it. So I might do that ten times, or I might go in and freestyle one line at a time, then close it up and come back to it a couple months later and re-write it from what I sang or change a couple things. There’s no rules, there’s just different tricks that I use to try to keep myself alive when I’m writing and recording.

I need to switch it up for myself because otherwise I start to feel like I’m repeating myself, or not surprising myself. There’s a fine line between a groove and a rut.

SP:  Do you practice writing words like you would practice playing guitar?

JB:  I don’t really practice anything anymore, but I do write or make music every day. I used to be more disciplined about it, but now I always have a project that I’m working on and I put my energy into that.

SP:  You keep a regular working schedule, going into the studio at set times like it was a job. Is this essentially where all of your creative work happens, or is it happening all of the time even when you’re not in the studio?

JB:  At this point in my life, the studio is definitely the center of where I create. I will write lyrics for songs there, either on paper, or as I explained before, I’ll improvise them onto a track. But I definitely write, both songs and lyrics, in random places. I tend to write in the parked car a lot. It’s my auxiliary studio. I don’t think I could mix any of my music without the car speakers. [Laughs.] They’re better than the studio monitors.

Cars are amazing. They can go just about anywhere nowadays, they sound great, and they’re very insular. I can concentrate really well in a car.

SP:  So that insular, solitary experience of the studio or the car helps?

JB:  I used to need very quiet places to write, and I still do really like that. But what’s interesting to me is that there are other situations which can produce words. I’m trying to open myself up to those; writing in busy places, or trying to write in my mind, trying to remember lyrics without using a pen and paper. Maybe I’ll be on a crowded bus and see something really fucked up, which, for some reason, triggers something about my trip to Cuba in the 40s and all of a sudden I’ve got an idea for a song. I’ll get ideas I wouldn’t have gotten if I were in solitude.

SP:  Is there a difference for you in the experience of composing music versus writing lyrics?

JB:  They’re becoming more similar. My early music writing had a lot of what felt physically comfortable on my instrument. And a lot of my early lyric writing was more of a mental and emotional experience; reflecting on my life, history, things that I felt. As I write more music it’s not enough just to trust what feels comfortable to my body. And similarly, when I’m writing lyrics my body has a lot to say and I should shut my mind up and listen.

I’m just trying to get all the parts of the person talking to each other. I’m trying to get all my personalities on the same team.

SP:  There’s almost always instrumental tracks on your records. Being a predominantly lyric-based songwriter, what’s the impetus behind the occasional purely instrumental music you make? Or in what way does it serve you differently?

JB:  I generally don’t like listening to records that are filled with words from top to bottom. The negative space between the words makes them more meaningful and can give that part of your brain a rest so that you’re ready to receive more words later on. It’s like in a movie when they do a montage. It’s not all dialogue the whole time. I like that.

SP:  As someone who has got plenty to say as a musician and lyricist, you put a lot of your own agenda aside and dove into Steinbeck’s universe on the Ray’s Vast Basement album, Starvation Under the Orange Trees. I’m curious what that was like. Did you feel constrained, given that you were working from somebody else’s material or did it liberate you to think about other things?

JB:  Both. There was a big push and pull with John Steinbeck. For two years I didn’t read anything other than Steinbeck. It was a real method acting kind of experience.

SP:  Wow.

JB:  It reached this insane pitch where I was trying to channel Steinbeck. [Laughs.] I really tried to send him some paper airplanes, ask him questions and wait for him to send them back. The dialogue that kept going on in my head would be John Steinbeck saying, “You gotta do your own thing. Write songs the way you think they should be.” And then I would say to John Steinbeck, “Yeah, but you gotta understand, this is a record about you and your books, and I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from them, so I’m not just going to do my own thing.” “Yes you should.” “No. I’m not just going to write about 24th Street and call it a John Steinbeck record.”

It was pretty nuts.

SP:  When you listen to that record now, does it sound like you channeling Steinbeck, or does it sound like a Ray’s Vast Basement record by Jon Bernson?

JB:  Yes.

Video for "Salinas River Theme" by Ray's Vast Basement
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