June 4th, 2021
|JENS WILL SEE YOU NOW # 16
Jens, if you had one day left to live, what would you do?
Jonathan, the currently oldest Giant Galapagos Tortoise, to the left.
A month ago I noticed that a birthmark that I’d been keeping an eye on had grown and changed it’s shape. I stood there in my bathroom, in front of the mirror, and examined it. It felt like a bullet hole in my chest. A deathmark. For most people I assume this wouldn’t be such a dramatic discovery, after all birthmarks do change from time to time. If it made them concerned, the colour, the shape, a certain itchiness, they would probably make an appointment with a doctor and get on with their day. But my old health anxiety that’s been haunting me on and off all my life kicked in with full force. The birthmark turned out to be fine but as I was waiting to get it examined I decided to observe what was happening within me. I felt like I needed to document it.
I started looking for a photo of myself with no shirt on so I could compare it but that wasn’t so easy. I rarely go to the beach or take my shirt off in public. I lived in Australia for a while but only swam in the ocean once, late at night after a gig in Byron Bay with Joanna Newsom. It was a perfect night. We had gathered up a gang and we swam out into the moonlit waves, laughing and splashing until Joanna said ”I think something touched my leg” and we suddenly remembered the signs that said to not swim after dark because that’s dinner time for sharks and they come closer to shore.
I’m a night swimmer anyway. I like to lie on my back in the dark water, looking at the night sky. So finding a photo of myself with no shirt on in daylight was tough. Eventually I remembered a trip to Miami and an ex girlfriend who stole my camera and snapped a photo. I look grumpy. But there it was, the birthmark, and it was different.
It wasn’t death that scared me. This became clear as I observed myself trawling the internet for answers that didn’t exist. I fainted once, 12 years ago when I had the swine flue, and the experience calmed me. Being unconscious was like not existing. It wasn’t like sleeping - I was just gone. And then I woke up and I existed again. So ever since then I don’t feel scared of the eternal sleep. No it was other things that scared me. Shame for example. As in hearing a doctor say ”why haven’t you come in with this earlier?”. How this can be scarier than death amazes me but shame is a powerful thing. It was getting stuck in endless hospital loops with doctors shaking their heads. This happened to me eight years ago and it was... Kafka-esque.
And it was not having lived my life.
”Bad habits can kill you (…) but your good habits won’t save you”. Says a chain smoking Fran Lebowitz in Pretend It’s a City. The oldest Giant Galapagos Tortoise - Jonathan - is 189 years old. That’s how you stick around - never leave your shell. The difference between a tortoise and a turtle is that the former primarily lives on land, the latter primarily in the sea. But apart from that they’re mostly focused on laying low and sticking around. And they seem to be fine with that. The most dangerous part of a sea turtle’s life is when they hatch and make their way from the safe nest in the beach sand to the dark ocean, navigating by the moonlight. Electric lights from the shore, streetlights and neon signs, sometimes disorient them and make them wander inland.
Another insight gained: When potential death is breathing down my neck everything feels much more vivid. Death holds up a mirror to life. Colours are brighter. Music is an almost religious experience. Feelings for my friends and family make me teary eyed. My love for my girlfriend takes on Young Wertherian proportions. I can’t sleep so I get up at 2am and sit on my balcony and watch the moon and it hits me that I’ve never truly seen the moon before. It is three dimensional now. I need to learn the names of every lunar sea. Mare Tranquilitatis - The Sea of Tranquility. Mare Nectaris - The Sea of Nectar. Mare Cognitum - The Sea That Has Become Known. What names! I make plans. I promise myself to live my life to the fullest if I just get another chance. But from the point when I find out everything is fine it takes me maybe two hours until I’m watching cute cockatoo videos on the internet again. I remember the exact moment when it passed. I sat down in the sunshine with an ice cream and tried to take in life. Tried to be thankful. But the new Magnum Double Gold Caramel Billionaire was a bit meh… and it was a bit chilly outside. So I went home and sat in my couch with my laptop. Swedish poet and Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer wrote in his most famous poem: ”In the midst of life it happens that death comes and takes a person’s measurements. That visit is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is sewn in silence”.
And while that suit is sewn you gotta do something. For example, here’s a video I love of a cockatoo barking at dogs.
My aunt passed away two weeks ago quite suddenly. She was diagnosed with cancer just before that and things got bad very quickly. I think this is what triggered my anxiety. I wasn’t super close to my aunt but she was someone who had been there my entire life. The last couple of years we had started bonding over cooking and gardening. She gave me a gooseberry bush this spring and if it bears fruit this summer I will make something nice from it in her honour. Maybe a gooseberry saison. I don’t know if she liked saison but I think she would’ve appreciated the idea.
Today I am 14.729 days old. If I had only one more day to live, Charlotte, I would’ve liked to go for one last night swim. Just float on my back in the dark water and look at the moon. There it is, the Sea of Tranquility. And just below, to the right. The Sea of Nectar.
June 2nd, 2021
|JENS WILL SEE YOU NOW # 15
I’m a songwriter like you. I have a dilemma and I want to see what you make of it. I’ve felt like I’ve had a creative flow for years despite having very little income / budget and two years ago, after I was signed by a record label, I was given a recording budget that suddenly made anything possible. It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of, I can hire a symphony orchestra if I want to. But I feel nothing. I’ve really struggled to write anything at all the last year. Is it performance anxiety? Writer’s block? Have you experienced anything like it?
I have a theory that the city of Gothenburg, where I live, consciously treats their artists and musicians poorly because they know this will make the music scene thrive. Like monsteras and cactuses we want to be neglected, we just don’t know it. Rehearsal spaces are demolished in favour of luxury flats and rent is pushed up until studios are replaced by advertisement agencies. I’m sure it’s the same in most big cities but I’ve always had a feeling that Gothenburg KNOWS. That they do this KNOWINGLY. Bruce Springsteen plays the local stadium about fourteen times a year when there’s no pandemic and the love affair between Gothenburg and Bruce makes sense. Bruce’s songs are about working on a dream, being born with nothing and working your way up. The working man’s struggle. And this still seems to resonate with Gothenburg being a former industrial city. Most of the factories may have shut down, but our spirits are still standing by the production line.
When Gothenburg’s music scene exploded in the mid 00’s, when we went from a town known for Volvo, shrimp sandwiches and BingoLotto to a city known for MUSIC, it didn’t take long for the local scene to implode and vanish. Our big music festival Way Out West, that started in 2007, quickly became known as ”Stockholm Week” because the crowd consisted mostly of people from Stockholm while the Gothenburgians went to their their local pub instead and sat there and muttered. We broke up our bands and cancelled our plans. The few ones who continued fled the city to go somewhere else. We just didn’t know what to do with our success. This is when the city council implemented drastic measures. By creating a sort of Matrix universe, a world where the odds were against us again, the city could trick us into making new music and continue to harvest the fruit of our labour. It's just a theory. But it could be true.
Before psychologist Harry Harlow performed his infamous, horrible experiments on baby monkeys in the 50’s, he performed a more innocent experiment focused on drive, or why we do what we do. He gave monkeys puzzles to solve, intending to reward them if they solved them. But to his surprise the monkeys became intrigued and solved them just for the fun of it. It fascinated Harlow as it was not a drive he could find a biological reason for. ”Solution did not lead to food, water, or sex gratification” Harlow reported. Once he introduced a reward in the form of raisins, the monkeys grew tired and abandoned the puzzles.
Darwin said about music: ”As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man in reference to his daily habits of life, they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed”. Music probably didn’t originate out of a direct need to survive, our fascination with it comes from somewhere else. I saw a documentary about music’s role in early stone age societies. Inside old caves in France they had found flutes made out of swan bones, stalactites that sounded like marimbas when you hit them and paintings that marked where the best acoustics was. I can just imagine a teenage caveman realizing that certain stalactites sounded better when you hit them in a certain order. Or finding a particular place in the cave where the acoustics was just right. For me the fascination started with the song Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. I had picked up a guitar and I realized that by simply plucking the E, G, B and e strings I could play the opening E-minor chord of the song without even using my left hand. It was so easy and the chord filled me with emotions I had never felt before. I had no choice but to learn the rest of the song. Which took me eight years.
We think that when we reach our goals we’ll be happy. But we’re not. Wanting, loving, creating requires a lack of something. In the case of making music it might be lacking the direct means to make music. To have to invent your own instruments, to figure out how music works on your own, to produce a song in your bedroom that sounds almost like the ones on the radio. I was just like you, when I was given a proper budget to make a record I momentarily lost interest and I couldn't understand why. When my budgets were cut in half last year due to the pandemic my creativity flourished. It may sound like a sad and provocative incentive to not pay artists but I think it's more a great reason to implement universal basic income. Because that would change everything, our whole relationship to money. And give us more time to become fascinated by everything that's free.
Having a budget to realize your musical dream is of course a great thing though, I'm very happy for you (I think? Maybe you make terrible music, I have no idea who you are). I think you will need to start rewiring your brain. That money has nothing to do with why you write, you can still tap into that place in your mind, just try to remember what was your own Nothing Else Matters moment and go back to that. Maybe use the money to hire someone, a producer or an engineer, who can help you make this transition. After all, this budget could take you to new places, where once again you will need to invent something out of nothing.
May 7th, 2021
|JENS WILL SEE YOU NOW # 14|
I recently rediscovered your Smalltalk blog after a hiatus of a few years, and I was so happy to see that you're answering questions and communicating in this way.
I think Smalltalk is really special - it's honest and poetic, and your writing is wonderful. Also, I don't know anything like Smalltalk on the internet - it's hard to find classic blog sites nowadays. As you've said, Smalltalk is much more of a personal space than social media, and more conducive of conversations like this. I think it's fantastic.
At risk of making you feel old, I remember reading Smalltalk when I first discovered your music a decade ago, when I was 13. It's amazing that you've kept up this public, archived diary for such a long time (with some gaps I'm sure) and that you've kept posts online from the very start in 2004 for all to see.
My question to you is this: how do you feel about this huge archive that you've created over the last 17 years, which is a social document of sorts? Do you ever look back on the old articles and reminisce? Finally, what motivates you to keep writing on Smalltalk and has that changed over the years?
From a big fan,
I noticed that you mentioned the birth of your friend's son coincided with your finishing Night Falls... and how that has become almost a physical measure of the time between your work then and now.
I suppose my question is about how you relate to work you did back then now, looking back. The Rocky Dennis era was almost 20 years ago now, for instance - does that distance give you a perspective on your own work that you might not have had before?
Personally, I struggle to recall anything older than about a week and actually being able to remember things from 20 years ago summons up all kinds of existential angst but that's just me!