Jesse Valencia Joins the Space Race With The First Band On Mars

Jesse Valencia is a man who lives to stay busy. He’s fronted the Show Low-based indie rock band Gorky for two full decades. He wrote the book on The Brian Jonestown Massacre. (And he’s got another title in the works.) He even acts, including in a movie alongside Tom Sizemore.

But it took a near cosmic event to finally make him go solo.

“Earlier this year, I talked to [Phoenix New Times‘ own] Benjamin Leatherman, and he asked if I’d seen the Phoenix Lights,” Valencia said. “Not long after that, my roommate and I were in Snowflake headed back to Show Low and a UFO passed over it. And I recorded it. It was like this hovering triangle that went over us on the road.”

From there, it was just a matter of forging another unexpected connection.

“Then I met these guys, the Cousins Brothers — Blake and Brent Cousins — and they made this UFO documentary, Countdown to Disclosure,” Valencia said. “They interviewed me about the UFO I saw. And they’re the ones who pushed me into doing the music video. I wasn’t planning on putting anything else out yet, because I’m still in limbo mode. I had that song ‘Be In The Now’ just laying around, and I thought this would be a good one to just do something really simple and basic.”

“Be In The Now” is the lead single to Valencia’s debut album, The First Band On Mars, which is due out October 7. All that cosmic energy clearly effected the singer-writer-actor, and he turned to similar musical cosmonauts for inspiration.

“It’s got some David Bowie flavor in it,” he said. “And it’s got some Pink Floyd and Neil Young as well as some folksier stuff, but it’s kind of got this hazy aesthetic. It’s very dreamy.”

It’s just not necessarily a “concept” album. (Even if he got to use a DIY spacesuit from collaborator Chase Dahlberg in promotional shots.)

“There was this prog rock band, and they had four or five different albums that all had this specific story to them — but I didn’t want to go that far,” Valencia said. “You’ve probably read about how when The Beatles  did Sgt. Pepper’s, it started out as a huge concept album. But then the story goes away after the first two songs; that’s sort of what happened here.”

He added, “[This LP] takes you to a different world, and the world of that sound is really its own thing. I wanted to have songs to sit on their own, without having to listen to the other songs. But when you listen to it as a whole, it’s supposed to take you to your space dream world. It’s just not like putting Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon that syncs up with Wizard of Oz.”

Eventually, though, he was comfortable providing a kind of skeletal narrative for the LP.

“But maybe the story is you, the listener, are on your way to Mars,” Valencia said. “You just got put into hypersleep, and this is the album that plays while you’re sleeping. It’s the adventure you go on from point A to point B.”

More than anything, there’s a distinctly cinematic quality to the LP. Valencia’s experiences across different forms of media have influenced the way he approaches every one of his projects.

“I’m always thinking about musicals and movies,” he said. “And each song is the story in and of itself. Albums have to flow for me like movies; they have to have an Act 1 and an Act 2. Once you know how to go make movies and write screenplays and do music and stuff, it’s really not hard to mesh those worlds.”

It’s not just movies, either, and there’s another sort of visual element or way of thinking to Valencia’s larger creative approach.

click to enlarge

A promotional piece of art for The First Band On Mars.

Mike Mahoney

“If I wanted to talk about political issues, I would gravitate toward hip-hop,” he said. “Or sometimes I have an Americana streak in me. Whatever emotions I have in me, it’s like having a palette of different colors. How am I going to paint? How is this going to filter through me? And what picture am I going to paint?”

That dynamic means that Valencia often follows his muse, no matter where it might land.

“We had some conversation about musical movies or music-based movies, and how every time I watch them I’m suddenly into the artist and I start making music like them,” he said. “You remember Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt? I watched it [once] and then [we recorded] ’80s heavy metal Gorky.”

He added, “If I was to put myself in that sense of who I’d compare myself to, it would be Prince or David Bowie or just anyone that dabbles in different genres.”

It’s an option he’s afforded as a solo act. Even if it’s not 100 percent different from how he’s fronted Gorky.

“I’m being completely honest, everyone has always said, ‘Well, you’re all of Gorky anyway.’ I wanted to be in The Beatles or I wanted to be in The Strokes. So I’m like, ‘OK, we’re going to do The Strokes, and you’re going to be this guy and you’ll be that guy. I’m going to write everything, but we’re going to act like it’s a group thing.’ And sometimes we would write as a group, and it was great. But most of the time, it was just me, writing everything and paying for everything.”

But, as he explained, this time around felt different, and he needed to go it alone in the purest sense of the word.

“I just didn’t want to do that with Gorky,” Valencia said. “Because if it was just me, then it’s not really the band. Gorky is already a thing. It’s an indie rock band. But I could be Davie Bowie or Bob Dylan or Prince.” He added, “This was going to be Gorky record, but there was no band to perform it,” mentioning the band’s hiatus due to COVID-19.

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Another promotional piece of art for The First Band On Mars.

Mike Mahoney

And the entire process has been a chance for Valencia to sort through his personal artistry. For instance, Valencia recognizes how fortunate he is to have spent the time to understand his creative goals and work that out in a way that fits his larger vision.

“I think it would take a lot of time for artists to get there, but once you get to a point where you know your sound and you know how to make what sounds good, a lot of the intimidation and fear goes away,” he said. “Because you’re not relying on engineers or other players. Then you just want people to hear it. And you’ll know, objectively, which songs are good, and that’s what you show people.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done, and Valencia has had issues trying to get the music into the right hands.

“I’m notorious for not knowing my audience,” he said. “Sometimes that’s tough when you’re an original artist, or there’s trends that are going on. Like with [‘Be in The Now’], I sent it to 100 different places. Most of the feedback I got was, ‘This is a really great song. But because it’s a full song, it sounds too old for us. We want just a verse and a hook and a chorus.’ But that’s not what I do, and so am I going to make stuff to resonate with people? You’ve got to be true to yourself. I’m not in my mid-20s; I’m in my mid-30s making a space rock album.”

Even then, Valencia has the perspective necessary to truly persevere.

“I didn’t even start doing things successfully until I was already 30,” he said. “When we did all those Gorky songs that were ‘little hits,’ I’d already been doing it for 10 years. It takes that long sometimes to be able to get together a song that people actually appreciate.”

Not that having a “hit,” as it were, has ever been a goal. Valencia said he’s always made music for one very important, rather specific audience.

“I appreciate playing live in a different way and live music in a different way,” he said. “We started Gorky because we wanted to make music that we wanted to hear. So what I got off on was hearing the music how it was supposed to sound. Pre-COVID, I didn’t care about the audience. I wanted to play so that I can hear the kind of music that I love.”

click to enlarge

Yet another promotional piece of art for The First Band On Mars.

Mike Mahoney

That approach helped him make The First Band On Mars, and it has been a central part of his approach to making art for his entire career. Eventually, a big song will happen if you just stay busy enough.

“I’ve written so many songs that, really, the band couldn’t keep up with what I wanted to do,” Valencia said. “I was in a mode where I could write a song, record it, and have it out that week. I could do that every week for a year. The more that you can learn how to do, the more different things which you can express.”

Our conversation inevitably returned to Gorky. When asked if he might have another follow-up to The First Band On Mars, Valencia said he might do another “chapter” alongside Gorky. He’d also like to get the band back together for more shows in the coming year — in addition to his many other projects.

Gorky, then, might not just be a band for Valencia. If this album’s a vacation to a distant solar system, then that band represents normalcy and solidarity. In essence, it’s the place where Valencia feels at home to do and say whatever’s on his mind regardless of the form it eventually takes. And like any great adventurer, he can travel to the stars because he knows there’s always home base.

“We’re all working-class folk, and not in a position where we could just drop our lives,” Valencia said. “We’ve survived through the last couple years to get back to the Gorky stuff. One day, we’ll come back to it, simple as that.”

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