Interview: Jack Dishel of “Only Son”

This interview originally appeared in The Bamboo Online in 2011.

Jack Dishel is a Russian-American singer/songwriter with a professional music career spanning over 10 years. A self-taught guitarist and songwriter, he released two albums under the indie rock band Stipplicon in 1999 and 2001. The underground success of the albums led to his role as lead guitarist for the popular folk-punk band The Moldy Peaches. It was a job that would take him crisscrossing the world on tour with groups like The Strokes and They Might Be Giants, among others.

Since the “indefinite hiatus” of the Moldy Peaches in 2002, Dishel has been engaged in a number of collaborations, as well as his solo project: Only Son. In 2011, he released Only Son’s second full-length album, Searchlight. He has created a number of music videos and played several shows in support of the work.

Searchlight’s musical sensibilities combine an interesting level of frenetic pop music pacing with stark cultural cynicism. From the explosive “Stamp Your Name On It”- a fast-paced, free-form Dylanesque lyrics ode to street graffiti- to the wistful “It’s a Boy”- a vignette of a couple struggling to pay for their genetically engineered fetus, which would not be out of place in the pages of a Philip K. Dick novel.

Dishel agreed to speak with me about his career, his collaborations, and future ambitions.

 “Searchlight” is your first Only Son album since 2006. How long has this been in development, and where/when was it recorded?

I toured for a couple of years supporting “The Drop To The Top”, the first Only Son album. I can’t really write on the road because it’s too hectic so I started from scratch when I got home. I wrote all the songs and recorded the album on and off for about two years. It was co-produced and mixed by my good friend Eddie “Pull” Frente – but we were rarely in the same room together. It was more like I’d send him tracks in progress
and he’d give his opinion on what needed to be changed. We were always talking on the phone about sounds and arrangement. We have very different approaches to music so it was cool to have a some resistance on certain things I never thought about before.

Was there an overall tone or thematic vision intended for the album, or do you see it more as a collection of your latest work?

I think themes do emerge with any collection of songs from the same person but it wasn’t intentional. Sometimes similar thoughts come up in different songs and seem to be related. Someone asked me once if I always think about infinity because they noticed that word in two songs on the record. But I wrote those songs ten years apart! Just happened to wind up next each other like old pals that had a secret agreement. I think the only attempt at a thematic vision was to make sure that every song was fleshed out to it’s full potential – no half baked goods. They all come from a different direction and so we made an effort to have them live beside one another like happy neighbors of different races.

How would you describe your songwriting process? Is it a strictly disciplined process in terms of routine and output, or is it more loosely structured?

No it’s definitely not a strict routine. I kind of try to sneak up on songs. Like if I want to “write a song” the whole thing feels too self-aware. But if I approach it with no agenda then I can just mess around and let whatever comes out happen. So I’ll sit there and play for awhile, maybe let the tape recorder run, and see if I like anything later. I get too distracted in one sitting. Actually I think I get too psyched when something cool starts to happen. So I go until I accidentally choke it to sleep – then I’ll leave it for awhile and come back later when we’ve both calmed down. In the end, the songs wind up being an arrangement of spontaneous moments, carefully sewn together. Kind of like a quilt made out of Polaroids.

Your family immigrated to New York City from the Soviet Union as Jewish refugees when you were three years old. Do you think that the “immigrant experience” gives any sort of outsider perspective to your music, or were you young enough that it was never really a factor for you?

You know, even though I came here as a toddler I still spoke Russian in my early childhood. At fist we lived in Queens with tons of immigrants and I was just one of many. But when we moved to Long Island in fourth grade I started to sense “otherness”. There weren’t a lot of immigrants there. My parents adapted to this country and became Americanized very quickly but I think that culturally they remained European. They didn’t care about football or hot dogs or any of that stuff. It was art and travel and education. When I’d go over friends’ houses I would notice a difference but I just thought their parents were cooler because I could drink soda there. Now I see the light. And drink soda.

The single “Stamp Your Name On It” seems to allude to your old days as a graffiti artist/perpetrator(?) in Queens. What were some of your old haunts? Does that period of your life inform your work at all today?

That song is only about graffiti in the sense of pissing on something and making it yours – like, as a positive thing. I didn’t have any particular haunts, really. The name of the game back then was to get my name on as many things in as many places in the biggest letters with as much style as possible. I still read the walls of the city everyday. It’s not something that leaves you – it truly is a lifetime addiction. I still go out every couple of years and do a legal piece with some friends just to get it out of my system. I love it. But nowadays I prefer making music for people instead of writing on their storefronts.

Thus far, you have released four music videos in support of Searchlight. The most elaborate (and cameo-heavy) being the aforementioned “Stamp Your Name On it”. How complex was the shoot, and what kind of budget did you have? What was the filming experience like?

It was fun! I got to run around all over the city pulling shenanigans like a professional shenanigist. We had no money as usual, so the idea had to be high concept, low budget. James Holland, the director, happens to be an extremely talented guy which is what makes something like that even possible. The casting of that video is as close to perfection as I think we could have gotten. We had Macaulay Culkin, Reggie Watts, Regina Spektor and Adam Green all show up to do their scenes on the same day! It was like a magical assembly line of talent. Oh Mack is done pretending to fight me with his tennis racquet? Well then it must be time for Reggie to levitate! And then, breaking up Regina and Adam’s special engagement moment. Even though it was bone chilling outside we were all laughing our asses off the whole time. I highly recommend doing slow motion slapstick comedy with your friends. You won’t regret it.

You have a long history of collaboration with other artists, and have a number of notable musicians on your new album (Regina Spektor, Fabrizio Moretti of The Strokes). What about the collaborative process appeals to you? Do you find it more or less satisfying than developing material alone?

I love working with other people but it’s something that I do when the song calls for it. There are certain songs that I have to play all the instruments on because I know how I want it to go. Even if I had the greatest guitar player in the world in there, I’d probably wind up doing it myself. On the other hand, certain songs are wide open for stuff and I love working with people on them. On “Call Them Brothers”, the duet with Regina, we all sat around the studio and arranged the strings together as we recorded. K Ishibashi and Dan Cho (RIP) were an unstoppable duo. I feel really lucky to have gotten a chance to work with Dan before he passed away. People and players of that caliber don’t grow on trees. It’s the same with Fab – he arranged these beautiful vocal harmonies for “Kick ‘Em Out” (bonus track) that I wouldn’t have thought of. They’re my favorite part of the song now.

What’s on tap for the future? Any future projects in mind? Is there anything you would to creatively try that you have not attempted?

I’m starting to tinker around with some new music but right now is a very wide open moment creatively. Making the album was a very painstaking process and I’ve started to pursue some other things that are more immediate. I’ve had a lot of non-musical ideas lately so I asked my friend if he knew of any comedy open mikes. He just said, “I’ll book you a standup comedy set at Gotham Comedy Club. You can do five minutes.” And instead of scaring the shit out of me, like a normal person, I got excited. Anyway, I did it and went twice as long as I was supposed to without realizing it. It went pretty well and I had fun, awkward silences be damned. So I booked a full length standup comedy set for August 11th at the Sidewalk Cafe. That is going to be a serious high wire act. The whiskey will be near me at all times. Feets don’t fail me now…

Music, videos, and the latest news for Only Son can be found at http://onlysonmusic.com/

The new album, Searchlight, is available for purchase at www.onlyson.bandcamp.com