“I want the emotion to be the center of truth” An Interview with G.O.A.T’s Jim Laczkowski
I first met Jim Laczkowski almost 12 years ago at a house show in Chicago. I’d just performed as part of a touring band (with my partner at the time,) and we were about to make our furtive exit when Jim began to play. Something about him—the frank warmth of his voice, the honesty of his lyrics—was arresting. His music literally stopped me in my tracks, and I stood in an enclave of the kitchen—next to a still-hot stove-top of communal spaghetti—to absorb his entire set.
In the past 12 years, Jim’s projects have changed names (from James Eric to G.O.A.T, short for Garden On A Trampoline,) shifting to incorporate new members and guest contributors (including myself in a band called The Anniversary Party). A lifelong film lover (and co-founder of multiple film-focused podcasts including The Director’s Club, Popcorn Supper, and his current solo venture, Voices and Visions,) Jim named G.O.A.T in honor of a scene in the David Gordon Green picture All the Real Girls wherein Noel (Zooey Deschanel) muses: “Last night I had a dream that you grew a garden on a trampoline and I was so happy that I invented peanut butter!” In his most recent album Silent Light, Jim experiments with sounds, song structures, and collages of disparate elements while remaining true to his original inspiration: a moment of playful expression, earnest longing, and the desire to share it.
ML: I’ll start off with a really basic but big question: what is your personal favorite song on “Silent Light”?
JL: It changes but right now, “Lead Me To The Shore” is an example of the kind of warm-hearted ballad I excel at. I feel comfortable listening to my voice in that kind of environment. That song was also one of the very first I recorded in the new studio where I work and felt so inspired that I even decided to play the drums. I’ve always enjoyed trying to balance external imagery that speaks to me with strong memories of someone special in my life. Obviously, nature preserves, oceans and lakes, as well as thunderstorms, have crept into my lyrics since the very beginning. When I was fronting a band, the first time I felt connected to the music and my voice was through a song I wrote about my dad called “Back To The Shore,” and I see this as a spiritual sequel though I’m clearly writing about someone that was or is close to me in a different way. I also love the idea of acceptance that even though I’m not romantically linked to someone, that simply having their friendship or a really strong personal connection can be just as fulfilling, which I hadn’t anticipated when initially scribbling down the words. It’s a song that wrote itself and found me, rather than thinking it through. Rarely do I sit down to compose a song about something specific except in the case of the title track or something like “ER Blues” where I intentionally tried to map out a story. Somehow the songs that don’t take that many takes or revisions are the ones I end up appreciating more.
Your music has always had a really strong, consistent technical and compositional backbone (and I’d love to hear more about your early inspirations, the music that led you to think, “I want to do this.”) In spite of—and in some ways because of—this, your albums have always been filled with playfulness, experimentation, and a unique collaging of elements: unique in that everything you do somehow feels so utterly “Jim”. How do you manage to retain such a powerful “Jim”ness while constantly trying new things?
Probably because I can’t truly escape myself. I imagine that as a fiction writer, you have to shape characters and think about an arc or at least find a satisfying final act to strive towards. I’ve known a lot of songwriters that aim to a sense of completion with narrative and a consistent through-line. I try to be in the moment and do whatever I can to make the songs sound organic. I’m not interested in perfection or music theory, but staying true to the emotion and experimentation. I’ve adopted two frameworks from a likely source and an unlikely one: obviously George Martin believed The Beatles used the recording studio as a tool or an instrument to help shape and craft their latter period work into something special. That’s something I wholeheartedly believe in. Adding layers, even just to a vocal track is something I will never get tired of. And the unlikely source is none other than Clint Eastwood who once said “Overanalysis leads to paralysis.” He’s not one of my favorite directors, but I am a firm believer in the one-take approach to recording a song without too many revisions. I want the purity of the recorded track rather than the ad nauseum approach of one hundred takes until it sounds “perfect.” It’s silly to strive for the perfect version. Granted, I love going back to old songs and seeing how they play later down the road to where I’ll even re-record them to see how they fit me now, but I truly want the raw essence above anything else. Which is why you might hear me laugh while recording, and I’ll keep it in there because that’s just what happened in the moment. I certainly love post-production and playfulness to where I get lost in trying to deconstruct and reconstruct certain songs, but in terms of recording, it’s important for me to turn on the mic, hit record, and make it happen in a way that allows for imperfection. Maybe that’s why I can never have mainstream success but I’m fine with that approach because it is how I try to live life: in the moment and without too much hesitation. I don’t want to overthink my art. I save that for big life decisions.
In the past, we’ve talked about your excitement toward that turn in a musician’s development where they begin to rely less on melody and resolution. Fiona Apple’s last album is a good example: a number of tracks felt more like complex, even estranging compositions than traditional songs with verses, choruses, bridges, and conclusions. Similarly, “Silent Light” feels like a markedly more complex and ambitious album than its predecessors. Do you see your interests developing in a more challenging direction?
It’s funny because I’m not sure if I actively think about direction so much. Part of me really does want to steer away from another record full of ballads and introspection, especially due to where this country is politically. But then again, ballads and heartfelt songs have always been in my life to where I can’t imagine not writing them. My guess is that ambition happens unconsciously while writing, to where a song may start one way, then completely change course simply because I want to try that approach. It’s more of an organic feeling that occurs midway in the process of writing a new song for the first time. I don’t think of myself as a storyteller when it comes to lyrics, but I do see the music itself as having first, second, and third acts in terms of changes, detours and chord structures. It’s probably because I do like structure and without a doubt, Fiona Apple’s last album was a game-changer. She almost deconstructed structure to subvert expectations but it’s funny how I try not to think about actively doing that. Again, it sort of happens like in the case of “Default to Dysfunctional” that I chose to open the track with an electric piano ditty before launching into indie pop rock. My only concern is that my lack of traveling and life experience could limit me to writing about the past, relationships, longing, and certain subjects and themes that are hard for me to part from. I imagine if I listen to more jazz or focus more on a future “challenge,” the songs could become more complex but I’m still a pop rock songwriter at heart. I still think of myself in terms of the artists that have inspired me the most like Liz Phair, The Magnetic Fields, and Wilco, who seem to embrace pop song conventions while simultaneously flipping those conventions on their ear, so to speak.
In addition to admiring your songs themselves, I’ve always been impressed with your seamless editing of albums, the way each track simultaneously feels like a welcome surprise and an inevitable development. I know enough about you and your amazingly prolific creativity to suspect numerous songs are sacrificed for the sake of the album’s flow. Can you tell us more about your editing process and—if you’re comfortable doing this—reveal a bit about these shadow tracks that didn’t make the cut?
I really appreciate the comment about “surprise” and “inevitability” since I think that’s what I always hope for. Despite the length of the album, there are about a dozen other songs that didn’t sit well with me. Mostly ones where the subject matter felt forced or they seemed incomplete. Several are also just instrumentals where I couldn’t find a melody or a vocal starting point of any kind. A few were political and I didn’t like how “surface-level” they were. Editing is tricky because even though the record is “done,” there is still endless moments of second guessing whether a song could be better or if I could’ve just made a single album. Sometimes there is this fear that my brain will lose the ability to write new material, so if I’m on a streak, I tend to go overboard. I may simply write too many songs in case I have a dry spell. I certainly have songs I might skip over with the knowledge that whomever listens to the record might do the same. I also thought of including the sketches and B-sides within the record itself because these days, people do their own editing when it comes to making Spotify playlists. I truly hate to be a downer, but the idea of a “record” like Dark Side Of The Moon or even The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin might be done with in the age of streaming, Bandcamp, and listener control. I rarely buy records myself because I’m more drawn to a song. So why not put it all out there and the let the listener decide which songs they gravitate towards? They’ll probably do that anyway unless Spotify goes away and we are all forced to go back to cassettes and turntables. Which I honestly wouldn’t mind, but I also believe in embracing the technology that exists out there too.
On the subject of editing, you’ve alluded to a kind of editing process—albeit a more intuitive, subconscious process—in your lyrics, a certain blurring of the lines between lived experience and fictionalized detail. As someone who does this a lot in my own writing, I’d love to hear more about where you draw the line between fiction and non-fiction, and whether that’s a distinction that holds significance for you.
I definitely believe in trying to blur those lines because let’s face it, memory isn’t reliable so we have to embellish or invent from time to time. I can recall certain details of being in a hospital, terrified and alone, but I never once overdosed on Xanax like I reference in one song. It sort of starts as non-fiction but then elements or details are invented spontaneously. I’m a big fan of random details that can give a scene more life or a deeper meaning. That’s where my penchant for film comes into play. Think of the way David Lynch does that throughout his work with fire, ceiling fans, or cigarettes. There are detours and moments where he peppers his scene with something random or insignificant to us in reality, that somehow becomes significant and meaningful just by the sheer act of focusing on them and not always for the sake of metaphor. Obviously we can think of fire as a metaphor for destruction, but there’s a certain beauty to making the choice to linger on it. Part of me knows I write too much in first person which could lead a listener to think it’s all autobiographical but I basically want the emotion to be the center of truth, and everything else surrounding it to be questioned or ambiguous as to whether it really happened or if it was invented. There are exceptions, such as the title track where I am specific about a concert experience which I wrote about based on a dream that reminded me of that experience. That happens a lot too. Things that I haven’t thought about in awhile will reappear in my dreams and then serve as a starting point for writing the next morning over a cup of coffee. The majority of my songs are about real emotions that have happened to me, and that’s undeniable. I worry about self-indulgence but I have to remind myself that there are good healthy forms of indulgence and songwriting is one of them for me.
Your album deals both in the personal and the colossal, exploring themes of love, longing, relationships, and compassion fatigue alongside the dread of a worldwide apocalypse. How do you see perceive these different territories functioning together?
Compassion fatigue is something that I struggle with. I experienced it intensely once to where I was oblivious of my own truth. I did wind up in the hospital once, almost delirious in a way that is hard to even fathom today. I even wound up in a self-destructive situation involving someone that actively wanted to cause harm, to where I felt some kind of weird internal apocalypse. But all of that sort of got brushed away after the last election. I’m not as politically active as I’d like to be, yet there’s no denying the impending sense of doom we’re all experiencing. I think the record reflects just a fraction of that fear that a new war will erupt at any given moment, due to horrible, unempathic leadership. There’s so much going on in the world in terms of conflict, ignorance, fear mongering and bigotry that even trying to write a song about it seems purposeless. Yes, the energy and catharsis might be helpful, but will it really change anything? Yes, true love and compassion are what I strive for but they’re being overridden by what’s happening as a collective community in this country. I used to be a lot more hopeful, but dread and uncertainty are in the front seat steering for a lot of people, and I absorb that energy very easily. I’d like to believe that relationships and fostering unconditional love can be some kind of guiding light and that’s what I think my mind tries to find, even when it seems impossible like it does lately. I do wonder that by finding a fulfilling relationship, my songwriting will change dramatically and honestly, I want to believe that my positive energy can cause the kind of longing I feel to one day disappear. Hopefully the world will not implode in the process.
Speaking of different overlapping territories: in addition to making music, you host an amazing podcast, Voices and Visions. I’d love if you could share some of the exciting developments with this project. Has your podcasting affected G.O.A.T in any way?
Much like my songwriting, podcasting is something that I try to embrace as another form of organic one-take expression. The conversation should not be edited, in my opinion. I grew up with a tape recorder, capturing discussions and moments with family and friends to go back and listen to later. It could be the fear of forgetting those moments, and as much as I like to read, I’ve always been an audio learner. So my curiosity for the human experience, since it’s unique to the individual, inevitably lead me to the interview style of podcasting. In a way, it’s an extension of my love for talk radio and journalism. I grew up wishing I could be a film or music critic, or a talk radio show host. Podcasting really does fulfill those dreams I’ve always had, and there isn’t a boss who will edit the content to where its essence is lost. As much as I experience social anxiety, I love the one-on-one experience with just about anybody. The more people there are, the less focus and comfort I feel. If I were to interview a group of six people, it would be extremely difficult, but Voices and Visions is all about experiencing and learning about a person’s life particularly filtered through their love of the creative arts. Film, music, books, photography, and even theater, are all joys of mine to where I will never get tired of learning more from the people that are also drawn to those forms of self-expression. I feel a sense of interpersonal connection through interviewing and podcasting that is similar to music, but definitely taps into the more social, conversation need that I have always felt since I was young. Music is more akin to therapy or meditation but I think that podcasting is a different version of that.
On top of everything else, you’re a teacher, and you’ve talked a lot about the impact this role has made on your life. Has this impact extended to your music?
Yes, most definitely. The students inspire me every single day. I can’t tell you how much joy I have collaborating and teaching music with others. Again, I feel blessed that it is also a one-to-one dynamic that is part mentorship and part educator. If it were a classroom full of thirty students, I think I would be far less successful. But the private institution I teach at has furnished me with amazing software and studio equipment that has turned me into a better recording engineer too. The greatest joy I have besides putting out my own music, is helping to shape and foster the vision of someone that is even more inspired than I am. The students that I work with feel more like bandmates sometimes, only with much less ego. Granted, I do teach them ProTools and provide them with suggestions and insights of my own, but I always tell them that it’s their song, their vision, and I’m simply just there as a guide. I don’t make demands in an aggressive manner, but choose to let them make decisions about how their art should sound. Obviously, I encourage them to be imperfect because that’s just an extension of my own beliefs when it comes to recording music, but sometimes they even want to record more takes and I love that they make decisions like that entirely on their own.
I always look forward to hearing recommendations from you, Jim, given your remarkable taste in music, film, and everything around and in between them. What should we watch? Who should we listen to?
There’s so much! I can’t say enough good things about the indie folk duo Big Thief. They’re making the exact kind of music I aspire towards these days. I love Kesha, Bully, Cherry Glazerr, Cigarettes After Sex, Waxahatchee, A Giant Dog, and especially Julien Baker. You can’t go wrong with any or all of those artists playing great shows and putting out great records. As far as movies are concerned, I’ve only been impressed with a handful of new ones from this year. My favorite films that are recent include Colossal, Personal Shopper, Staying Vertical, Baby Driver, The Big Sick, Raw, and for something light and thoroughly enjoyable, give Band Aid a shot. And I encourage any reader to email me their thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org if they listen to or check out any of my recommendations since I love feedback, input, and other suggestions too! They can even criticize or compliment my music if so inclined.