Most people who make New Year’s resolutions promise to do something like get in shape or quit smoking, but Jason Molina’s annual ritual is a bit different. “Every New Year I throw out songs,” he says. “I just threw out probably 20 tapes full of demos and I didn’t even listen to them. . . . Getting rid of all that old stuff really forces you to write new material.”
For Molina, songwriting is like an addiction, though it’s hard to argue that it’s been unhealthy for him. Over the past decade he’s released nearly 20 albums and EPs of moody 70s-style roots rock and stripped-down indie folk under a variety of names–most notably Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.–and earned widespread critical acclaim.
Raised in West Virginia and Ohio, Molina came to Chicago in the late 90s, then in late 2001 moved to southern Indiana, where his backing band lives. “It was so much cheaper in Indiana, particularly if you wanted to have a practice space and an apartment,” he says. “But if I’d had my choice I would’ve never left Chicago.” This summer Molina’s wife was offered a teaching job in town, and in September the couple settled in Andersonville. “The way the band works now, we don’t need to rehearse a lot because we tour so much,” Molina says. “Me being here won’t hinder anything.”
On Sunday Magnolia Electric Co. plays Schubas, and Molina will return to the club for a solo set every Monday in February. “It’ll give me time to work out some of the newer songs that I haven’t really had a chance to run by the band yet,” he says, “and a lot of the older material that isn’t really conducive to the group format.”
Last year was Molina’s most productive yet: Magnolia Electric Co. released a live album, a studio full-length, and an EP and toured Europe, the U.S., and Canada. In the months to come the Indiana label Secretly Canadian plans to release another Magnolia LP, a Molina solo disc, and an album-length collaboration between Molina and Camper Van Beethoven front man David Lowery. “By the middle of last year I had a vision to release these three distinct albums,” Molina says. “As I would write a song, I would see where each one fell.”
The solo album, provisionally titled “Let Me Go,” was recorded in Indiana last February and will be the first to see release. Its sparse piano-and-guitar arrangements recall Molina’s 2004 acoustic disc Pyramid Electric Co. “We basically set up two or three mikes and I was able to control the tape machine from the studio floor,” he says. “It was all done live, no overdubs, no fancy mixing. But I managed to get some really terrifying, creepy sounds. It doesn’t have any of the Crazy Horse vibe that most of the Magnolia stuff has.”
The Magnolia LP, Nashville Moon, was tracked with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio, and later this month Molina will head back to mix it. Returning to the tapes will be emotional for both men. Just as recording was about to begin back in July, word reached the studio that local musicians John Glick, Doug Meis, and Michael Dahlquist–the drummer for Silkworm and a close friend of Albini’s–had been killed in a car crash. For Albini and the Electrical Audio staff, the news was, as Molina puts it, “the very definition of heartbreak.”
“I wasn’t personally close to any of those guys,” says Molina. “However, everybody I knew was extremely tight with them. As soon as we found out, I wanted to cancel the session. I told Steve, ‘Look, we can do this another time.’ But he and everyone at Electrical insisted that we finish the record–I think they felt like they needed to, in a way. . . . As a result the record has a really heavy atmosphere.” Bottomless Pit, a new four-piece with Silkworm’s Tim Midgett and Andy Cohen, will open Molina’s February 6 Schubas show.
Tragedy also followed Molina into the studio this fall, when he was working with Lowery on their collaborative album. They’d met early in 2005, after Camper Van Beethoven’s gear was stolen on tour–when the band passed through Indianapolis Molina offered to loan them some of Magnolia’s equipment. (CVB is playing the Abbey this Thursday; see the Treatment.) The two became friends, and in November Molina went to Lowery’s Sound of Music studio in Richmond, Virginia, with some of his new songs. “It was really exciting,” says Molina. “I mean, I used to buy those Camper Van Beethoven records growing up.”
Partway through the session, though, Molina learned that his mother had suffered a massive stroke. “She just dropped at work. They called me and told me she wasn’t going to make it through the night,” says Molina.
Unable to get a flight back to Ohio right away, Molina decided to finish the session before he went home. “We really came up with some strong, high-impact emotional stuff,” he says. “I know I’m very fortunate in that I’m able to deal with really difficult situations by making music. I’ve kinda always been that way, ever since I was a little kid.” He and Lowery got through eight tracks, and in late February Molina will return to Richmond to complete the record, titled The Black Ram. His mother survived her stroke but has been in a coma and intermittently on life support ever since.
Even with three projects already in the pipeline, Molina is eager to launch more: his work with Lowery, as well as with Will Oldham and Alasdair Roberts (as the Amalgamated Sons of Rest), has opened his eyes to the possibilities of collaboration, and he’s talked with locals like Jeff Tweedy, Sally Timms, and Andrew Bird about recording together. “I always think it’s good to start at home,” he says. “There’s such a tremendous pool of talent in Chicago.”
In March Magnolia Electric Co. will play Hurricane Katrina makeup dates in Tennessee and Texas, then hit South by Southwest. Later that month the band will kick off a two-week tour with Destroyer.
Molina is already looking past the mixing of Nashville Moon to the next Magnolia album. “When I walk out of Electrical Audio, the first second my feet hit the pavement, I gotta start writing the next record. I like to write as much as possible. Of course, it doesn’t mean that I don’t edit,” he says, laughing. “Another year from now I’ll probably be throwing out a bunch of what I’m working on now.”
Magnolia Electric Co., Palliard, Smallwire, Deaths
When: Sun 1/15, 9 PM
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Info: 773-525-2508, 18+
More: This show is part of Tomorrow Never Knows; for a full schedule see page 34
Since last week’s story on local musician and soundman Gary Schepers, several readers have written in to ask how they can make direct contributions to help defray his medical bills. Benefit organizers have established a Gary Schepers Trust, and donations can be made in person at any National City bank or mailed to the branch at 1520 N. Damen, Chicago, IL 60622.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.