Interview date: 03/31/2008
Run date: 04/17/2008
Mercy (Dancing for the Death of an Imaginary Enemy), the third album from New Jersey's OURS has been a long time coming. Six years, in fact. After DreamWorks folded, front man and creative mastermind Jimmy Gnecco found himself bouncing from label to label, caught in the rapid decline of the music business. But things weren't all bad. Able to fulfill long-existing aspirations to do so, Gnecco got to make a record with legendary producer Rick Rubin. On April 15, Mercy finally was made available to the listening public. We sat down with Gnecco to discuss being hazed by Marilyn Manson fans, the six-year gap, why Rick Rubin doesn't like studios and why Mercy is OURS' most definitive work to date.
Bullz-Eye: Where are you calling from today?
Jimmy Gnecco: I'm in New Jersey, where are you at?
BE: I'm in New York.
JG: Oh wow, so you know the cold rain that we're having here on Opening Day.
BE: Unfortunately, I do. Are you a big baseball fan?
JG: You know, I wasn't my whole life, but my son, being a huge fan of the Yankees and being a ballplayer himself, that made me one, so I guess I should say I am now, I'm a big fan of baseball.
BE: Nice, way to go. So are you ready to just launch into it here?
BE: Alright, well are you are just coming off of a tour with Marilyn Manson, how'd that go?
JG: It was good. It was really amazing for us to play this record in a lot of those venues, because they're bigger venues than we're used to. But, when we made this record, we were just so excited about the record, and it's really a big sounding record to us, compared to the other things that we had done, so the first thing for us was to get into these venues and see how it sounded, see how it felt as a band being on these big stages, and it was great for that aspect, 'cause it gave us that chance to do that. It was exciting to think, wow, we were playing for 4,000 people a night, once you get past that initial thing and realize that "wow, 3,000 of those people are going to be booing us like crazy."
BE: Oh no, why'd you think that?
JG: Well, we didn't think it until the first show, when we realized that a lot of Manson's fans– it was like a hazing thing that was happening every night.
BE: That makes sense.
JG: So, it was -- the excitement of going out and playing the most moving show that we could do went away in the sense of being able to use all of our songs, all of our tools that we have. The mentality changed to wow, now we have to go out and use certain songs and really win these people over. Not that that's not what you do every night, in a sense, but you hope that you can go out there and be completely who you are, in your most natural form, and we had to look at it more like, how can we really win these people over and not get hazed or whatever. They were just screaming stuff like crazy, throwing stuff at us.
BE: Oh wow.
JG: Yeah, that was right out of the gate, first show. (laughs) Welcome to the tour. But once I think we understood that that's what it was going to be — you either accept that challenge, or you walk away, you quit. And we decided to hang in there and get through it. That's what made it rewarding in the end. When you come off stage and you realize that all those people that were screaming stuff at us, booing at us, giving us the finger, throwing stuff at us, we actually turned them around.
BE: That's awesome.
JG: Yeah. So that was rewarding for a couple reasons, but at the end of it… I guess that's how I'd sum it up, it was a real challenge, but at the end of all of it, it was a really rewarding one.
BE: Now are you touring again soon, or do you get to rest for a little while?
JG: We get to rest for a few weeks. We're going to do some one-off shows here and there.
BE: Yeah, I see that you're playing at Nokia Theater.
JG: Yeah, that's a benefit show for a friend's organization. I think Slash and Perry Ferrell and Dennis Leary are all going to be part of it, so that should be fun.
BE: Wow, that sounds cool. So, I have a bit of a logistical question – I was told originally that the album was supposed to come out on the 18th of March, but then I read that it's coming out on April 15. Can you clear that up for me?
JG: It's April 15. We spent such a long amount of time working on the record that once we got into the artwork, it was taking a little longer than we would have liked. The company is kind of over, there are changes going on. It was just a little scattered, it was tough to get things focused all around, just to get it exactly how we wanted, but we didn't want to rush it, so unfortunately we had to push it back. It was really our choice. We were given that choice, either push it back and get it right or put it out. To me, it would kill me to get it out there knowing it was supposed to look like something else and didn't.
BE: Of course. Now, speaking of delays, the big elephant in the room is how long the album's been delayed. I've read a lot of various reasons for this: artistic reasons, business reasons — what can you tell me about it, was there one big smoking gun, or was it a variety of factors?
JG: Why it was delayed a month or why it's taken so long to get out?
BE: Why it's taken so long to get out.
JG: Well, because I guess we basically changed labels a few times. We started out on DreamWorks.
BE: Right, I read about that.
JG: DreamWorks folded. Then their bands — we went into Geffen. So we started to make the record for Geffen. Geffen decided to keep us and let us make the record. The woman who was president, Polly Anthony, is a great woman. I really like her. I went and had a heart to heart with her about how I was kind of unhappy with my experience with DreamWorks, and I talked to her, and I pleaded with her, I said, "Please, just let me go, let me make this record on my own, or somehow let me make this record with Rick [Rubin]." She said, "Well, look, we're going to keep you. I believe in you, I feel like you just haven't had a chance to make the record that you wanted." So, they pretty much right at that point started to send me the money and say, "Go make the record that you want to make, here's the money, whatever you need, go make it how you want to."
JG: We started to do that, and a few weeks later we got the call from Rick saying that he was going to logistically be able to do the record. So, we started to make the record for Geffen. By the time we finished it – you know, because Rick makes a lot of records at once, so it's hard to nail down a schedule. So it took us most of the year to get in the studio from that point, even, but by the time we did – we worked on the record for about maybe seven to nine months. At that point, Geffen had changed hands again and there was a new president. That president decided that he wanted more of a pop label, so he couldn't really find a place for us as far as being a new band that still hasn't broken here in America or anywhere, and that wasn't going to be maybe the most straight-ahead formula that they might have with some of the pop artists. So they put us on to Interscope. Once we were at Interscope, we went in saying, "Well, either you really care about this and you want it to happen, or you'll just let us go." Luckily, the logistics of the relationships with Jimmy Iovine and Rick, they wanted to work all of it out and we were able to go with Rick, which is what we had originally wanted years ago.
So, we changed hands a lot and that — to get beyond musically working on it, which could take time, it was — to get somebody to sign something in the music business, you know, there's a lot going on. People are losing their jobs, the whole business itself is just crumbling. So to get anybody to make decisions or get things done, it wasn't the easiest thing to do. So sometimes really basic things would take four months just to get approved, to get somebody to just sign off on something. That process really took a long time. Luckily, while that was happening, we were able to continue to just tweak things, as business-wise, that whole thing was being worked out, we were able to go back and say, "You know what, we have another six months, I don't love that vocal on that song, let's do that over. I don't love the mix on that, let's work on that." If we have the time, it's not costing us any money at all, the files and the tracks and everything, we have the time, we may as well work on it, because nothing's happening, otherwise. So, really, that's what it was, just working our way through all the changes in the music industry, which took the longest amount of time. It wasn't even the recording it so much, that was done over a period of I think it was eight months, and that's really looking at a long end. We worked for about three months recording in California, then I came home and I sang and I put some more things down. The recording process didn't take that long, like I said. Mixing took longer because we had the luxury of time because nothing was happening, anyway.
BE: Speaking of the music business and everything, a lot changed, obviously, between 2002 when Precious came out and now. There's Radiohead, of course, there's Fiona Apple, who put out the original version of Extraordinary Machine online when that was in limbo. Did you ever consider doing something like that, releasing it online?
JG: Truthfully, I signed with DreamWorks in 1997, and I was really concerned, even back then about what was going to happen, because you could tell what was happening, basically. Records were starting to be taken and copied, and downloaded and all that stuff, and I said to the person I signed with back then, "We're in serious trouble," and I remember him saying to me, "I don't think it's going to affect us much."
JG: (laughs) That's like, "You're insane. But okay, look, you're the money guy, you're the one that works at the label. If you're not concerned about it, then I'm not concerned about it." That was when I first started to worry about it. Truthfully, I'm even concerned with what's going to happen between March 18, the time our record was supposed to come out, and April 15, when it finally comes out. Things are changing so drastically, I'm even concerned about that. I was thinking, "Wow, I wonder if we should've actually released it, at least digitally." But, I think with us, all in all, for the most part on a sales level, it's not a big deal. I think we have a lot of great, die-hard fans, and I think that they're going to want to own the record, anyway. I think when you get more into the masses of people who aren't as close to a project--we're lucky to have, at this point, this cult following. I think the music's really special to them. I think you need to really love OURS at this point, or you really don't like us. I don't think there's anybody in the middle. And personally, I think it's a lot of those people in the middle that end up taking your music. Like, "Yeah, give me that song, I'll take that, sure, I'll try that out." I think, I mean, that's my gut on it. I think that a lot of our fans at this point are going to want to buy the record, anyway, and the masses aren't looking for it yet, because we're not that big of a band.
All in all, I don't think that not releasing it digitally, I don't think it's going to really affect us that much. I don't have any idea, in the grand scheme of things, where things are going, I just know if something that's on my radar is a concern, like "Oh man, are people even going to by records by the time we put a record out?" It's been like that since I signed, and it's obviously gotten progressively worse, but all in all we've always looked at the records as a way to get people to shows, because we're a live band. Even at this point, if they're stealing them, hopefully they come to the shows. That's about the only thing at this point, for us, that we can even come close to counting on. Because even if we were selling a ton of records, the truth is that we'd never make a penny off of them.
BE: Right, I would imagine that that's how a lot of bands feel at this point, that getting people out to shows is where the money is at.
JG: Yeah. I mean, I do have certain sense of responsibility and concern for any label we sign with, I want them to make a lot of money on us, I want to do everything I can to help them do that, but at this point, there's nothing, really, that we can do. I think it's gotten past all of us, on this level. So, you just see what happens.
BE: Do you think that the prolonged delay will help or hurt the response to it? Do you think that the build-up and the wait have maybe produced high expectations, or do you think that people will just be incredibly ecstatic that it's here?
JG: I think that with anything when there's a lot of hype about something, if something's being held up, it could potentially build a lot of hype and then people might listen with different ears than they would if it was just like, "Oh, that record's out, let me go discover it on my own." They're already — something happens naturally with people where I think they want to, if something's hyped, it feels like they take a listen and go, "Well, I don't see what the big deal is." In that sense, I do think it's a little dangerous, but at the same time, we're really proud of the record and we love it, so we would hope that everyone would actually give it a chance. Even if they don't like it at first because they feel like there was a bunch of hype behind it because of how long it took to make or who made it with us, I think that, when that stuff goes away, we made the best OURS record to date and I would think that if they really like us and know what we're about, then I think that they would like this record, because to me it's definitely the most definitive piece of work that we've done.
JG: So, I don't worry about it too much. Looking at human nature, I see what you're saying and it definitely is a dangerous thing. I've always tried to stay away from hyping things up for that reason, because you always want people to listen with honest ears, and an honest heart, and not have it affected by any hype or popularity or anything like that. I'm not sure, I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Like I said, I can only hope that they'll be open-minded enough to listen and not think about any of those things, just really listen to it. If they love it, they love it.
BE: I read that the writing process for this was more collaborative than it was for the first two albums, is that correct?
JG: Well, it's more of the record-making process was, in that sense. I think it gets a little gray, and it's hard to describe. You have a core element of a song and then you have what goes into that recording and that arrangement of that song. In the past, on the first two records, I had it really laid out, basically, in that sense of the different parts. Anybody that came in, I was like, "Well, these are the parts and this is how you're going to play them." It wasn't because I wanted to be any sort of dictator, it was just out of necessity. I didn't have a set band, so out of necessity, you write different parts for different instruments and once you know that they work, you just say "Let's just go make the record, we know that these parts work and I really like them." What happened is, I got a deal before I had a real solid band, and I always wanted the band to be developed before I made a record. So, on this record what we did is, we pulled back on that process and rather than say, "We have to go make a record right away," it was more like, "Okay, I have these songs, let's make sure that they feel like a band playing them." So what that meant was sitting in a room with everyone and everybody having the opportunity to bring what they would bring to the song, whether it was a part or it was an idea to cut out a part, or to repeat a part of the song. So that's kind of how we did this record, you know, that banging our heads against a wall coming up with arrangements and then pretty much went to Rick and changed all that anyway. But it's more of like, if you can try to picture, if there's a piano part on the first two records, there's like a 99 percent chance that I wrote it. This time, if there's a piano part on the record, there's like a 25 percent chance that I wrote it or that I played it. Everybody got to really bring themselves to the record.
BE: Was it hard relinquishing that control?
JG: No, not at all. When the ideas are great, it's easy. That's the whole thing, when you have a certain trust and understanding that I think goes into any good relationship — you know, I've been trying to apply this to even my relationships with women (laughs).
JG: Because I've struggled with that over the years, but the thing is that once it felt safe that nobody was coming in to try to change what they were hearing but only trying to aspire and maybe make it better, then it's really easy, there's no power struggle whatsoever. It's not about — that wasn't hard for me. I don't know what kind of perception people might have, but in this band we really try out every idea that anybody comes up with. It's not about, "I don't care what you think." It's always like, "Yeah, let's try that." The only thing with me with this whole thing was that we tried everything. Anybody who had an idea got to try it, we spent time going in that direction to try it. Basically, I would produce the situation before we get into Rick's hands. It wasn't the kind of thing where Rick had final say and that's it, that's the law, because he doesn't work like that. He wanted us to be happy first. So, in order for us to be happy, that was our process, we get it to where everybody has exhausted their ideas and I pick what I feel is best for the entire situation, what feels right in my gut and normally I make that decision by being in the room because I see how everybody is feeling about something and it's like, "You know what, this feels right to us." It's not a dictatorship and it's not a typical democracy. It's weird. There's a very unique situation that works, so when it works, you try not to question it too much.
I just know that I feel safe in the process of making this record, I felt safe enough to let go of a lot of the control and luckily when you have good people around, you aren't going to then take that newly gained control that they have and try to get just what they want out of it or abuse the situation, it turns out to be great, just like any great relationship. It makes you feel good about letting go of the control because the person that you let go of it to doesn't try to use it against you. I think that that's kind of the formula for us. And with any good relationship, if you make yourself really vulnerable and you tell somebody a hundred things that really hurt you and affect you and then they turn around in a fight and they throw that back in your face and they use it against you, it really makes you close off and not want to share anything with anybody anymore. "Why would I tell you that? You'll just use it against me." With this situation, I felt a trust, where it's like, "Nobody is here to fuck with me. Everybody is here is committed to it being great." And you have that mixed with everybody's natural instincts being right and on the dot. It's not as easy as just trusting somebody and then being happy with what they come up with. Luckily, we all had a similar kind of thing that we were going for, so that made it really easy. It became about the idea more than it became about my idea. I think that's the formula that's been working for all of us. "What's right for the song?" It's not, "What's right for Jimmy, what's right for Jimmy's song." I don't think anybody felt that ever.
I think that there's an unspoken, invisible kind of thing that exists that, yeah, at the end of the day, I'm not going to do anything that I don't like, but at the same time it's never been like, "You gotta fucking do this, or you're out, stupid." It's not that vibe. It's much more loose and far more rewarding than anybody from the outside — they might say, "Oh, it's Jimmy's band, so he must be a dictator and that's that." I don't like that. If you ask anybody involved, it's a rewarding process at the end of it, when you look back at the record, you say, "Holy shit, that's my guitar part right there, and it sounds great." We allowed that to happen, not only allowed that to happen but at the same time, making sure that it happened as great as it could happen. I think that's the truth, that's how we made the record and that's why we're very happy with it.
BE: I have to ask, what was it like working with Rick Rubin? Was it exactly as you had hoped it would be? I know you wanted to work with him for a while.
JG: That aspect — going back to your other question — that was the most terrifying thing to me, as far as, like you were saying, if it was hard to let go of that control, that was hard for me as far as a thought, before we got in to working. Because I don't know, truthfully, how produceable I am, I don't know how directable I am, in that sense. I'm not one of those people who's like, "Okay, now go and sing it like this." I can be singing it and he can say, "Do me a favor, try to cut that line off sooner, or try to bounce that line more, add a little more rhythm to it." I can take subtle things like that, but being sculpted like clay, that's not what we do, so I was terrified of it at first, because there are a lot of producers that work that way. He assured me, "Don't worry, don't about anything, you're not going to put out anything you don't love." The reason I felt that way is because in the past, I was really put up against the wall about that and told, "Well, I hope you can learn to live with it, because we're putting it out." That's just a really awful thing to say to somebody, but that's what we were up against in the past, so that's what made me have that fear. I did everything I could to not project any of my past situations on to this new situation. I told Rick my concerns, he said, "Okay, don't worry about 'em, it's not going to happen." So, from that point on, I put it behind me and I didn't project and anything he asked us to try, we tried.
All in all, it was a really great experience for us. We made the record with a sense — he never came in the studio. Not even one day. He doesn't go to the studio, that's not how he works. We went to his house before we recorded the record, and I played the songs for him on my acoustic guitar and we arranged them right there in his library. Once he felt like the arrangements were right, he said, "Okay, go record your record." We waited and waited and waited, "Oh I wonder if Rick will come today… I wonder if he'll come today," and he never ever, ever came. We saw him on the first day and that was it. So he basically trusted us to make the record that we wanted to make and make a lot of those decisions. I picked a team, the engineers, the people--anybody else who would come in and play on it as far as additional people we wanted, people who mixed it, he let me make all those decisions, because he wanted — he knew, he's a smart guy. He knew who he was getting involved with. If he was getting involved with somebody else, he probably would've treated it differently. For me, he knew. I like to be left alone in the laboratory, messing around with things and seeing what happens, that's who I am. Not everybody is like that, you know, some people are just like, "Make it great, so when I come in and sing on it, it's great." But I like to be there the whole time, turning knobs and seeing what happens when you do all this weird stuff. Like, "Let's cut that section in half, let's completely filter it out" – whatever we can do, I like being there through the entire process of doing that. He doesn't. He doesn't like that environment, he feels it's a really boring place, so it worked out perfectly. I got to play around in a toy store with my best friends, and we're sitting there playing with all the toys that were made available to us because he was doing the record with us and it was such a perfect situation for us.
At the end of the day, I would say that — and I can go on a long trip about what I feel real, uncompromised art is — uncompromised art is exactly what you do as one person, unaltered, unaffected by anything that anybody says or does and you put it out. The reality is that we're not in that business, but we like to try to preserve that thought as much as we can. We're in the business of now you have four other people in the band, you have an engineer, you have a producer — that's our team. I can accept that. And a manager, a manager that you really believe in, who believes in you and understands you and can offer guidance when needed. Beyond that team, I'm not interested in art by committee. I think art by committee is for pussies, personally. In an ideal world to be able to do something in its purest form — I wrote this song, I arranged it this way and I just recorded it, I put it out. Yeah, there's going to come a day when we do that with no producers and it's just like, "This is what it is in its most natural form," but there still might be some element of somebody in the business saying, "Hey, let's repeat that section, that sounds great." There might be, who knows. That's where you get into the grey area — it's already compromised work if some person said to repeat a section and you listen, then you've already compromised your work. In our sense, I like to look at it as we signed up for a collaboration, and it's the truest sense of collaboration in this record as far as everybody collaborating and being happy with the end result. That's what it is. It's not a situation at this point in our careers where we can just say, "You know what, we're just going to go into a room and then we're going to play whatever comes to mind and then we're going to put it out and release it." That's art in the sense of its purest form, that's really not what we did here. We tried to make the best record that we could. Are we artists? Yeah, I think so, to a certain extent, but we're in the record making business and unless you want to be a complete dictator there's no way to really do that in its purest form until the day that it's like, we roll tape, and this is exactly what came out. There's a lot of that to it, but there's still decisions that you make along the way, and once you do an edit or once you change an arrangement, you've already changed the form, so it's not in its most raw form.
But I think that, to sum it all up, Rick allowed the process to be as natural as it could be for us and for it to be as rewarding at the end of the whole thing. So, to say that it was a success in that sense that — and I can always say great things about Rick — I've known him for a long time, before we even made records with him and I've always really loved him. As a person, I've been close friends with him and I care a lot about him, so there's that, but beyond that, as far as working together, he was great, because he was just like another guy in the band with a great opinion that you can trust. He doesn't have all the answers, and he's the first to admit it, and that's great. It's so frustrating to be — I've come across people who really, really believe that they're the authority on things, on pop music, on whatever the case may be, "I know pop music, listen to me, this is the way that it is." I think that's just crazy talk. There are plenty of times where I asked Rick something, and he was like, "You know what, I don't know." And I love that. Because a lot of times, we have no idea. You might have an idea of something you want to work on and your experience brings you into a certain direction and you can pull from your experience, you can say, "You know what, I'm hearing this sound and now I know how to get it." That's really rewarding, when you get to that point in your creativity, your ability combined with your imagination come together and great things start to happen. I think that exists, but I think there's also a certain amount of, "I just don't know, let's see." That's what made it exciting for all of us, not knowing — you don't have any preconceived intentions on what you want out of it. Having said all that, it was an amazing process. We're happy with the record. We wish it didn't take so long, but because we love it, every time we played the songs live, it just feels like, "Wow, this still feels completely brand new to us."
BE: You've obviously put a lot of work into this, it sounds like it was pretty labor intensive, so it is kind of a relief now that it's out, after crafting it so meticulously, is it kind of like "whew, it's finally out, people can finally listen to it?"
JG: Oh yeah, definitely. The working on it wasn't even the part that was the emotional trip, the emotional trip was carrying around a lot of these songs for the last 15 to 20 years, because some of them are really old. To have an idea for almost 20 years about a song in your head — and these ideas are what keep us, as musicians and songwriters, that's what keeps us alive, you have this idea and it keeps you going because it feels like, "Wow, I can't wait to work on that." So when you have that and you're carrying it around and a year goes by, two years go by, next thing you know 10 years go by and you still never had a chance to put that idea down or exhaust that direction or idea, it does a weird thing to you. You really feel like you're in the twilight zone and you're stagnant as a person, because if you were able to just put that idea down, you'd be able to move on from it. So, for me, I was unable to move on from a lot of things in my life because these songs were just, they were weighing me down, not to sound weird, but they really were.
BE: No, that makes sense.
JG: So to record them and have them done it was just, exactly like you said, it was "Whew. That feels good."
BE: Well, thank you so much.
JG: Thank you.
BE: It's been a pleasure.
JG: Likewise, I really appreciate you taking the time, I get kind of long-winded.