Artist Interview: Jimmy Montague

Posted: by The Editor

The video for Jimmy Montague’s “70th Avenue Hustle” captures that lost-in-thought daze that creeps in during the monotonous walk home from work each day. The shoes the viewer walks in are presumably James Palko’s—a multi-instrumentalist who releases solo work under the Jimmy Montague moniker—and his inner thoughts creep into the video as a track that began with a steady, gentle fingerpicked pattern blossoms into a bridge with tight horn lines and a greasy guitar vying for attention. The text running the lyrics on the bottom of the screen is replaced with “(JOVIAL HORN MUSIC PLAYS LOUDLY),” shortly followed by “if only you fuckers knew the work I put into this” in a slightly smaller, almost apologetic font. 

It’s a funny bit, but there’s certainly some truth to it, as the 2021 Jimmy Montague album Casual Use is a massive record with lush string arrangements, precise horns, and some slick guitar thrown on top of Palko’s piano-led tracks. On making Casual Use, Palko said “I just wanted to make a big sounding album. I love big bands, I love huge brass arrangements, I wanted to hear these songs embody the vision of like, horn players on risers behind podiums, that sort of nonsense. My first few attempts at making records I was pretty obsessed with the idea of doing everything myself but Casual Use and my work since has seen me relinquish some control for the betterment of the songs. A very Steely Dan-inspired approach to making albums, the excitement of looking at liner notes to see who played what, bringing in the best players to suit the song. As I continue to make more albums, I have more and more fun bringing in session players (despite it financially ruining me).” (which isn’t a bad time to mention that Palko has a Patreon set up with tons of demos and studio updates from his Jimmy Montague music and the various other projects he’s working on)

That fill-up-the-liner-notes collaborative approach to recording is both an added bonus and a necessity when it comes to a record like Casual Use, although, naturally, these songs start with Palko in isolation, and he says the process “has always been the same across all projects. I’ll hear a song I think is so good it makes me absolutely nauseous to even listen to it and then I’ll listen to it over and over until I’ve picked it apart and then I’ll sit down at either guitar or lately more-so piano, and try to create my version of what makes that song so good to me.  And while that, written out, looks incriminating, I usually end up so far away from the original that it takes its own shape and form. But I think the most important thing that gets accomplished is that the mood the song put me in gets translated into some new outlet for me. Once the song and structure are in place, it’s all trial and error arrangement, and then I find what I call ‘the melody of least resistance’ and make adjustments from there. I usually make one slapdash demo as fast as I can, and then sit with the song until it’s time to cut the track. I’d love to one day get that down to just cutting the track, but having the time to sit with it allows me space to think about the arrangement.”

On his lyrical approach, Palko says “I feel I’ve always written the same way, although I’m constantly trying to get more honest and blunt. I’ve always admired songwriters like Nilsson and Newman who can just say something as it is, no hiding. Sometimes I chicken out and go vague as to not give it all away, but Casual Use is pretty on its sleeves. A meditation on failed friendships, relationships, and bad partying as you leave your early twenties and pick through the rubble.”

The bluntness is on display on “A Few Less In Attendance,” one of the more somber tracks on the record, and one Palko says “is actually my favorite track on the record, that flute solo by Mike Schmidt really nails it for me. ‘Few Less,’ I feel, embodies the whole album in one song. Sort of a George Harrison’s Dark Horse album type of song.”

Lines like “we can pump you full of liquor / here it’s cheaper for a pack / so just come home where you came from / and Jimmy don’t look back” in the first verse lay out the increasingly less-tempting siren call of the past party days in the song, but it’s the third verse that drives everything home following the huge section with “now I’ve found my god in silence / but he never lets me rest / from how close I used to cut it / playin’ close to the chest / to the friends I’ve disappointed / and the family I let down / I guess I’ll just grow older / still thinkin’ of myself.”

Other standouts on Casual Use are the effortlessly smooth “Long Long Lonely,” a tune Palko says “has some of my better lyrics that sort of fell out of my ass at the last minute, as well as the first time I’ve written out a sort of Classic Rock guitar solo that was appropriately cheesy. I had a lot of fun with that one.” It’s contrasted with the late-night piano plucking of “Maybe One More,” which Palko said he “wanted to feel almost Noir-esque, the pad of the woodwinds on the second verse hit so well when I finally heard it played, and I’m pretty proud of that end string arrangement I tacked on there, any excuse for a viola to be given an interesting part.”

When touring for Casual Use Palko played solo acoustic, reshaping the songs as slickly strummed jazzy tunes that highlighted both the quality of the songwriting and Palko’s skill on guitar. On translating such huge songs into such an intimate setting, Palko was as blunt as the lyrics on the record, saying it was “rough. Anyone who’s close to me knows my gripes with live music, but it’s especially frustrating to try and play out for JM. I’ve done it a few times, and I know it has to be done if I want to push further with this, but I don’t love it. The songs, in my opinion, are meant to be heard in full form, not by me playing a stripped version on a classical guitar, stressed out and nervous. There are some elements to it I enjoy, but I think until I can afford to bring a band, it will always feel a bit lackluster to me. It’s intimate though if you like that type of vibe, and sorta feels nice if the guitar parts are good in that song haha. I’ve had some people see the show and say ‘man you should just do that! cut out all the bullshit you’re doing and just play classical guitar tunes’ which is…nice that they enjoyed it, but makes me want to die.”

Fortunately, fans did get a chance to hear a pair of the Casual Use songs live in the full-band setting the way Palko intended, with the “Casual Use” and “Always You” Live at the Custerdome sessions. “Live sessions seem to be the perfect middle ground for me,” Palko said, “although to the degree they help a band’s publicity, it’s hard to say. It was awesome to just hire the band for the day, rehearse, nail the tunes in a comfortable setting, get the sound right, capture the performance in a way that can be rewatched, and then go back to my apartment. They were really a great hang, I had almost the whole horn section from the LP (Mike Schmidt, Matt Schmidt and Ben Barnett), brought in drummer Adam Szulczewski from The Most (who would later become the session drummer on the new LP) guitarist Connor Waage from The Most, keyboardist Paul Piwowarski, and Matt Cook and Jacob McCabe from PALHTH. Jacob and I arranged the whole set in our old HQ, and my brother Thom Palko and cousin David Greene shot and did art direction. We edited and mixed the entire thing in house, had lunch, and everyone went on their merry way. I love a live session, and will definitely be doing more for the coming album.”

Speaking of a new album, it’s been nearly two years since Casual Use, and Palko has another Jimmy Montague record lined up, saying the ten songs have a different feel from Casual Use with “many new textures of organs, wurlitzers and rhodes, as well as a new percussionist and new soloists. It felt really nice to explore a new sound, and maybe dial back the loud in-your-face type arrangement in favor of tighter, more controlled and tasteful choices. I learned a lot by making Casual Use, but I also don’t feel a need to make that album again.”

While not on the new record, “What If,” a song from the same recording sessions, came out on the Making New Enemies Group Picture compilation this past Christmas. A bouncy track with a bass line that steals the show, it definitely points to an intriguing take on the Jimmy Montague style, which Palko said came about “during tracking for Casual Use, I was still living in Queens and with half my gear in limbo between there and the PALHTH HQ, I started writing new tunes that were a little stripped back and poppier. I was worried that my songs relied too heavy on big arrangements, and I should have to prove it to myself I could write a catchy song without all the fanfare. I wrote a handful, most got axed, 2 made it on the new record, a few are being pushed to the next one with a different style in mind, and ‘What If’ was tracked in the same session but didn’t really feel like the album. I wanted to see it cross the finish line as a song though, so it made its way onto the Group Picture compilation that Dustin from Walter Etc. and all his friends and cronies inhabit. The song is about fate locked into indecision, right down to why I made the song in the first place: what if I take away all the arrangements and my songs are no good? I wanted the drums to have that Plastic Ono Band slapback, but with a Wilco-esque vibe to the playfulness of the song. Had a lot of fun with the aux percussion on this one.”

A new Jimmy Montague record isn’t the only thing Palko has lined up, as he said “while 2022 was a logistical nightmare, 2023 should be pretty productive. At the end of the month Taking Meds is going in for a new album and subsequent tour. Spring should look like the finishing touches on the new Jimmy Montague LP, as well as slating work on the new Pretty Rude LP. Outside of that, I’ve been working on a new record with Skylar Sarkis for Growing Stone, and hopefully seeing a new LP from Jacob McCabe via Chet Wasted. All that coupled with a few tours and live sessions should hopefully keep me too busy to think.”

At least a handful of those 2023 live shows should include the final Perspective, a lovely hand to hold shows, the experimental emo band fronted by McCabe (with Palko joining on bass in 2017). The group put out what is planned to be their last album this past spring, Phantasmagorialand—a record that revels in its weirdness while still reaching some incredible heights. It was also a PALHTH record that Palko had more of a hand in shaping than the group’s previous records, as he did not play on the band’s early releases and says “while I wrote my bass lines for most of Lousy and sang and helped shape the production closely with Jacob, Phantasmagorialand is the first time I really ‘wrote’ anything for this. ‘Surviveding’ and ‘Executionist’ were both songs that needed endings that I am excited to have written with Jacob. Over the course of 2020, Jacob and I lived together, watched a ton of films, absorbed a great deal of art and music and regurgitated that into Phantasmagorialand. It was like putting together a puzzle. I scored the string section over his piano arrangement for ‘Stay Near,’ we conceptualized segues like ‘Remote Controller,’ hid secret messages in ‘Executionist,’ cackled to ourselves about ‘Accidents Happen.’ Making that record with him was a wild time, and definitely my favorite of the PALHTH catalog.”

While the record works in some quirky sections amidst the catchy rock choruses and wicked guitar riffs, the group has been able to naturally shift the songs to the live setting, with Palko saying “so far live, we have only played ‘Still, Natural Disaster,’ and ‘Surviveding.’ We can play them pretty true to the album, however it would be nice to hear the screaming organ both on ‘Still’ and ‘Surviveding.’ The songs on the album aren’t too difficult to replicate but we’ve been workshopping ideas to capture the beast in its entirety at least one time in the near future.”

While there’s always a bittersweetness to a band’s final run of shows, like Palko, the rest of the Perspective crew keeps busy with multiple projects and still have new musical avenues to pursue. On the group coming to an end, Palko said “I joined the band around the end of 2017 and have played live since as well as helped write, produce, and record both Lousy and Phantasmagorialand with Jacob McCabe. PALHTH has always been Jacob, Matt, Ben and Andy first and foremost. They’ve and we’ve been a band for a long time, and have seen it change its sound pretty drastically over the years. I think the frustration with poor turn out and poor album receptions have exacerbated everyone’s desire to do something new. I can only speak for myself but I’m sure the sentiment is shared across us and musicians alike: it’s incredibly frustrating to put out new music that you feel more accurately depicts your work only to have people clamor for the first EP. Ben and Jacob have begun a new project called Eat The Stereo, a blend of electronic house and indie music. Jacob, Matt and I play in Pretty Rude. I play in Meds, as well as my own solo music. Jacob has Chet Wasted as a personal outlet. Ben has been involved with bands like Bowling Shoes, 5ever and more in Boston. With all of that going on, it’s hard to justify taking the time to go out and play ‘Pepe Silvia’ for 3 weeks to less and less attended shows. That said, we all make music with each other and run a studio with each other, and if there’s ever a moment we want to make another PALHTH album, it’s always possible. As it comes to the emotional side of things, I’ll let Jacob, Ben and Matt eulogize, it’s not entirely my place to do so. I owe a great deal to them taking me on tour and letting me write with them.”

One of the bands mentioned by Palko, Pretty Rude, put out their first batch of songs in 2021, a self-titled EP with a fuzzed-out attitude that really shows Palko’s range when placed next to something like the delicate sway of “Stuck With You” on Casual Use. Palko said the group “was originally an idea I had to fill up my downtime. I wanted it to be an online supergroup, where I’d write the tunes, send them to some drummer from another band, bassist from another, guitarist from another, enlist vocalists etc etc. The logistics of that fell apart almost immediately (it was going to be called QWOP, like the game, a flailing attempt to control many different limbs across the finish line). The songs sat shelved for a while until PALHTH started winding down, and I pitched them to Matt and Jacob. Jacob helped me rework the songs and dress them up into a heavier guitar driven outlet. Since then, we’ve written for a new full length slotted for this year, and if the stars align, a tour. I’ve never fronted a band before, but as we continue to write, Jacob and I have taken on a John and Paul approach where we each sing the main on the tunes we write while giving complimentary B sections to the other. Sort of like ‘I’ve got a feelin’’ or ‘Day in the life,’ which takes a lot of pressure off me,” he jokes.

Every song on the EP absolutely rips, but there’s something in “Blues Brothers Soundtrack” that points to some interesting threads Pretty Rude may unravel on their first full-length. On the track and future of the band, Palko said “‘Blues Brothers’ is a great example of Jacob. That second verse was same as the first when I wrote it, and he tore it down and pitched his vision, and we had a great time with the aux percussion and bringing in Paul Piwowarski to play slide. With songs like ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ or ‘Cold Seltzer for the Deadbeat Soul,’ the mantra was always big greasy and rude. I’ve always had an affinity for power pop cock rock like ACDC or The Darkness, and hopefully we can slide that across to elements of Jacob and I’s solo music, hints of Jarvis Cocker and ELO. I’m really excited to go in this year and make an album for a very silly very fun rude band.”

Aaron Eisenreich | @slobboyreject

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