JOAN WASSER/BLACK BEETLE (1997)

Originally published on Swizzle-Stick.com (1997)

You probably don’t typically think of a violin as a rock and roll instrument. Joan Wasser does, and she’s been playing violin in bands for nearly 10 years. As a member of the Dambuilders, Joan and her violin added flavor to the indie rock band and her talents were noticed. Joan was soon asked to contribute violin to albums by Juicy, Mind Science of the Mind, Morley, Ruth Ruth, and The Grifters, where she met Dave Shouse. Dave contacted Joan a few years later when he was putting together Those Bastard Souls and asked her to join the band which she did.

Around the same time, Joan began writing songs with Michael Tighe who had played in Jeff Buckley’s band (Joan herself had a Buckley connection — Jeff had played bass on tour with Mind Science of the Mind). The two called their new band Black Beetle and were joined by drummer Parker Kindred (Jeff Buckley’s band, Grand Mal) and bassist Oren Bloedow (Lounge Lizards, Elysian Fields). Black Beetle made it’s debut at a tribute concert for the late Jeff Buckley in 1997 and has been busy writing material since that time. The band recently had the opportunity to open for Morrissey in New York City (it’s home turf) and was featured on MTV 1515. (You can learn more about Black Beetle, including hearing 3 songs, by going to their website.) If you live in the New York area, you can see Black Beetle perform on June 15 at the Mercury Lounge in NYC.

Being a fan of the past work of the band members, especially Those Bastard Souls and Jeff Buckley, Swizzle-Stick’s Chip Midnight set up an interview with Joan to find out what was going on with Black Beetle.

Here’s what he learned:

You’ve been around the music scene for a while. It seems that kids aren’t going out to shows any more; they aren’t getting excited about bands that they should be getting excited about. What do you think the problem is?

You can always blame the computer. People sit at home and look at their computers. Think about before computers. Nobody did that; no one sat around and stared at a set unless it was a television. Now people think that they are learning, and they are, from the computer. I think there is less guilt involved with looking at the computer than with looking at the television. I don’t really know though because I don’t have a computer or a television.

So you must be at concerts every night.

I’m at concerts some nights. I do try to go out a lot because I think it’s really important to support music. But I also just love being in it. It’s not such a moral thing, I just love seeing live music, there’s nothing better.

Who recently has caught your eye?

There’s a band from New York called Johnny Society. They are our friends. They are really great and really fun. I think you can get their record at Tower Records. They write kind of classic songs.

I play with this band called Anthony and the Johnsons. Obviously I play violin. There are strings, winds, rhythm section and a piano. Anthony is amazing. He’s got a really natural, great voice. He does sort of a cabaret show here in New York every couple of weeks.

You play with a number of different bands, people . . .

Mostly I play with Black Beetle. I do shows with Anthony but that’s not a huge thing. I do that when I can. As far as Those Bastard Souls, they have recently terminated their contract with V2, who put out the record. Dave (Shouse) handles the business and stuff. It’s his band. He terminated the contract and is very happy about that. He recently played with the Grifters again. Dave’s going to be writing some songs for the Bastard Souls in the next couple of months and we’ll see what happens with that.

So Black Beetle is first and foremost the thing right now?

Yeah, now and forever for me. I haven’t actually done anything with the Bastard Souls for a while now. We did a tour about 8 months ago and then they did one tour after that without Michael and I. I’ve been concentrating on Black Beetle.

Is this the first time that you’ve been the lead person in a band?

That’s correct. It’s really different. Also, I’ve never been the singer of a band. I’ve always sung a lot of backups but I’ve never been the person responsible for getting the song across. That’s been really challenging and really informing. It’s makes me really deal with myself. If you’re not totally down with yourself, you’ll find out how you’re not if you try to start being the singer of a band. At least that’s what I found. But that’s always good. You just feel very responsible whereas if you’re just one of the contributing band members, it’s not that you don’t feel responsible, it’s more of a supportive role and I really enjoy being in that supportive role. I’ve really had to get used to being in that lead role and accepting that.

At what stage is Black Beetle now? I know you’ve recorded a 3-song demo.

The demo we did quite a while ago. Those songs were recorded between March and May of last year. We’ve been doing a lot of moving. We still play those songs a lot but we’ve written a hell of a lot of other stuff. We’re always moving, growing into our own. We’re going to be recording this summer and releasing something at the beginning of the next fiscal year. I can’t tell you under what label or heading because we have a number of options and we have to figure out what we’re going to do. We’ll have something out soon. Thank God. We’re really looking forward to being able to provide people with something because people are getting angry with us.

Are you looking forward to going out and playing the material live?

I am, I really am. I love to tour. I love playing. It’s just so great to have that rhythm. Here in New York, it’s really tough to play shows because none of us have cars because we live in New York. That presents such a problem getting your gear to and from shows. You have to move everything with cabs. It’s just dumb. New York’s not really set up for doing it. So when you’re moveable in a van with all your shit in it, it feels very freeing.

You have already generated a buzz – MTV and VH-1 have both done spotlights on the band as have a number of publications.

I know, I don’t know how that happened. The MTV thing, this guy who heard about us through someone in New York came to see us play, loved it, and did a thing on us. Same with the VH-1 thing. Because of the projects that we were in prior to this, people are interested in what we’re doing, they sort of keep abreast of what is going on. And, mostly through the Internet I think people know about us. Other than in New York, how do people know? I think it’s through the Internet, which I think is amazing.

I imagine the Jeff Buckley fanbase has been pretty supportive of the band.

They are, they definitely are. It’s a nice group to have.

You said that you’re thinking about signing with a major label, did you consider putting anything out on your own, especially considering the fact that you’ve played in bands that have been signed to major labels?

Yes I have definitely thought about putting things out on my own and that may be how we do it. I don’t know yet. We’re trying to really weigh the options. It’s a confusing decision to have to make.

At what point in your life did you know that music was going to be it for you?

I guess I’ve always been really attracted to music. My parents always really liked music. They sang in choirs and stuff and were always very supportive. I went to public school and they offered string instruments in third grade. For some reason I was like, “That’s it. I want that.”

Did you ever think you’d be playing violin in a rock band?

No. At that point I had been dancing for a bunch of years and I loved doing that. I was dancing and playing violin. When I hit puberty, my knees gave out and I had to quit doing that. I kind of knew I wasn’t going to be a dancer. It was really fun and everything but then I just started doing music a lot more. I was always really attracted to the power of music and the way that it moved you. Being in an orchestral environment is so great because you’re making music with a hundred other people. The scope of the dynamic range and the textural potential is so wide and that is always very exciting. That always kept me very, very interested.

Was there ever a point where you started thinking, “Maybe I won’t make a career out of playing music. Maybe I should get another job”?

No. I refused to think it. Maybe that’s stupid, but I refused to think that. The support that we’ve got in New York really has helped fuel me because we’re just always getting more and more people to the shows. People are just so giving with their comments. I just really feel like we’re doing something important. Michael and I write the songs and we’re constantly trying to write the better song and write the songs that more people are going to like or are going to hit people in a certain way.

Do you think you give back to music as much as you get from it, both in your own music and in listening to other people’s music?

I hope that I do. I really care about it and I really care about touching people and affecting them. When I’m performing I just try to empty myself out so that I can be the conduit. That’s harder at some times depending on what is going on in your life personally. I know I’m getting better at doing it so it’s helping me.

Do you think that if people read your lyrics, they’ll get a better understanding of who you are?

Probably. When we started writing we used a lot of images and I really love writing images. It’s very poetic. At the same time, I feel writing with so many images; it’s relegating the song to a certain face. It’s very ethereal. It can be very personal but it’s never as personal as “I hate you” or “I love you.” So I’m trying to learn to express myself very plainly and trying to make that more my poetry than using images. The images are very personal but I guess I’m trying to learn to write more personally.

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