Sort of Feeling Pretty Good
John Terlesky, aka Brother JT, talks about Spiritual Thing (Drag City, 2002), Neil Michael Hagerty, "Mole in the Ground," the Beatles and the Velvet Underground, and his positive attitude.
By Jayson Whitehead

Your new record Spiritual Thing is a little less straightforward rock and roll and more organic than past efforts. What pushed you in this direction?

Well, the feeling I got was that things had changed to the extent that rock wasn’t really working for me. And I had been sort of feeling pretty good, I guess—as opposed to the usual up and downs—and I think it reflects in the songs. I developed a theory about songwriting that if you write songs that have bad endings or are full of torment, etc., they tend to come true, and if you write a positive song it's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I decided for my own best interest that maybe I should write some really positive, spirit-affirming, life-affirming songs for a change. Coupled with that was the fact that I just felt like rock, for me anyway, wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in at this point because it’s kind of been done to death. I thought, "Let’s turn it around 180 degrees and go with the other side for awhile."

Was Neil Michael Hagerty in tune with that as well?

Yeah, I think he welcomed it in a sense. It’s hard to read. Under the circumstances I think it fit in well because we didn’t have a lot of time to record and this kind of music doesn’t sound too bad bare or stripped down. So it fit in with the context, and as usual he was on task. It worked out nicely.

I feel like that’s a general movement in music right now. People are tired of the massively produced and over the top sound that seemed to be the theme of recent years.

Yeah, I mean it still is if you have the money, I guess. I think I know what you mean. Production has a lot to do with, at least for me, whether I like a record or not. The record can have good songs, but if it's overproduced and slick I'm going to have a harder time getting to like it. Whereas if it has this kind of nice, clean, not even necessarily big, but just appropriate production, that’s a hard thing to get sometimes. Yeah, I think it’s a reaction against all the kind of production and performance overkill in the last decade or so, trying to see who can be noisiest, who can be most abrasive. [I'm just trying] to get back to what music can do in a healing way.

The two traditional songs really worked into that theme, you trying to be a little quieter…

Yeah, the spirit of those songs I think set the tone. The one being "Poor Wayfaring Stranger"…

Where did you know that song from?

I got it from a Folkways anthology. The name of the singer was Almeda Riddle. But it was a Folkways anthology I happened to get at the library sort of boning up on this stuff, and this song immediately hit me. Unlike some of the others, this went right to my brain, and I thought I would like to sing it because for some reason I can relate to it. I was feeling alienated in the world, and instead of just complaining about being alienated in the world it allows you to say thoughts about going to a better place. It gives you a good ending. And likewise with "Mole in the Ground." Like I am just a mole in the ground but I’m going to root this mountain down. That keeps you humble but it allows for a good resolution of things for you as a person. I think it played into the other songs I was writing at the time—you know, stepping back and really noticing how beautiful things can be, having the right attitude, not dwelling on the bad things for once.

I really like your cover of "Mole in the Ground," one of my favorite songs on the Harry Smith anthology. It really works the way you’ve treated it.

Yeah, I love his version, the Bascom Lunsford version. It seemed to me it’s such an empowering song, why not do a Zeppelin thing on it, like "When the Levee Breaks"? When we do it live it gets a little more out of control.

Did you consciously make "Lord You Are the Wine" sound like T. Rex?

I was actually thinking more along the lines of [Norman Greenbaum's] "Spirit in the Sky." They are both from the same period, sort of pre-glam. It wasn’t so much T. Rex, but that combined with the old kind of sing-along spiritual song. I remember I originally wanted to do it a cappella but it’s a little too long to do that, so it ended up evolving into this kind of "Spirit in the Sky."

It’s such a catchy song—like "Spirit in the Sky" or T. Rex's, where you just can’t get it out of your head.

Yeah, it’s just a nice long groove beat, and you can sing along to it. It’s meant to be that way. It’s a nice time—that period of music.

What musical sources do you draw from? Do you have major influences that affect what you do?

Yeah, I think so. In a sense the way I play guitar always goes back to the Velvet Underground because it is so primitive. I never wanted to be a really accomplished guitar player. I think it usually gets in the way of what I like in music, and they were the ones who really laid it all out there. Those sounds could have one chord if you want, and you don’t have to even do solos or crazy things. You can just bang away if it is compelling enough. In a way the more primitive the better. So that’s the foundation there and everything that came out of that, the Stooges and all that. But then on the other side I grew up in a household where my older brother would get Beatles albums when he was growing up, when they were coming out, and he would be playing the "White Album" or Revolver and I, as a kid four or five years old, became convinced that the Beatles were the only group in the world. I think that set the tone for the pop end of things because they were the prototypes for what I considered great pop music. I think it is between those two, and everything just gets mixed in with a lot of other peripheral stuff like John Lee Hooker and ethnic music and jazz. But what it comes down to is somewhere between those two poles.

The Beatles and the Velvet Underground were at opposite commercial poles. Does it ever bother you that you operate on a small, indie level?

Well, yeah, I would have liked to have succeeded more, but frankly I am just shocked that people still put my records out because I have never sold that many. I'm really thankful there are labels out there willing to do it, and if it stops I am not going to kill myself. I think I have put out enough records, but it's really nice that there are some people out there who will buy them. That’s enough for me. I guess the one thing that irks me, not so much Brother JT—I don’t expect that to be popular—but with the Original Sins [Terlesky's first band], I wish that had had a better chance because that stuff was geared towards being more popular.

Yeah, is that stuff available on a label now?

Not really, no. That’s another thing. I have been thinking about maybe putting together some kind of anthology and trying to get it out on some label. You know, there are a lot of groups that do that these days, and there were ten albums and I think a lot of the stuff is pretty good. I kind of wish I could have it today.

You've worked with Neil Hagerty on these two Brother JT albums [their first collaboration was Way To Go]. Do you have a good working relationship with him?

Well, it seems to work. If you were there, you wouldn’t expect it because we are two completely different people. But the thing about it is, Neil will go against my instinct, not intentionally, but because he thinks differently than I do. And to me, that's the greatest kind of collaboration because I have had my way with a lot of records and I think a lot of times that maybe that’s not my strong suit. Maybe there should be somebody there saying, "No, I want to do it this way." At the time I might be thinking, "I really wish we could have done it this way." But then later after letting it sink in and letting my own perspective go by the wayside it works in a way that I would have never done. And if that works with other people then that’s fine. But it’s a very fast process. We did this in two days—recorded and mixed it in two days. I think for that it came out pretty good.