A Conversation with Jandek, “Sterling Smith”

Andrew and Jandek

The following post conveys all of the ideas I can recall from my half-hour conversation with Jandek at Block 7 Wine Co. on Nov 8th 2009. Photo by Monica Danna


“How did you like playing at Diverseworks?”

 The gaunt man dressed in business casual on the patron side of the bar gave me, waiter, a curious look over.  He looked me in the eye and saw the question he had heard.  He looked down, laughed, and raised his beer to me.  “I never would have thought-”

 I smiled.  I was right.  The man sitting in front of me was Jandek.

 “It’s nice.  Tiered seating.  120 people.”

 “I’m thinking of doing a show there,” I said.  “I like the idea of doing shows in a theater like that- the audience would be quieter, you can control the environment a little more.  Good for acoustic/strings music.”

 “Yes, people listen.”

 “You did that show at Rudyard’s too.”

 “Those are the only two places I’ll play in Houston- Rudyard’s and Diverseworks.”

 I told him about my plans for the solo album – cello, violin, upright bass, mandolin, violin, banjo, percussion, acoustic guitar

 “ Where are you recording?”

“At SugarHill.  Have you recorded there?  I know that Dan Workman played with you at the Diverseworks show.”

“I haven’t recorded there, but I’ve mixed a lot of albums there with Andy Bradley, worked with him back when he was at ACA too.  Those are big arrangements you’re working on.”

 “Yeah it’s driving me crazy but I think it will sound great in the end.  Taking some time, though.  I got this job to help pay for it along with my other job in the med center.”

 “What do you do in the med center?”

 “I’m a research assistant.”

 “That’s good.”

 “I feel like I have three different lives, though- here, there, and music.”

 “It’s okay to have many lives.  It’s good.  I’ve always had a few myself.”

 “Do you like writing with other musicians in the room or writing alone?”

 “The second.  Alone.”

 “That’s how I am too.  I’m really open to writing collectively with the band, but I get most ideas when I’m on my own and then bring them to practice.  How many albums have you recorded?”

 “Sixty one.”

 “Sixty one albums.  How many songs per album?”

 “Ten, on average.”

 “I’ve written seventy five or so songs, but this solo album will only be my second full-length release.”

 “Seventy five?  That’s good.”

 “Thank you.  I don’t know where they come from, I just know that I can write them, and the ideas keep coming.  Sometimes I won’t write for a few months, but then I’ll get a bunch of ideas at once and end up with four or five in a week, and on and on.  I trust the process though and I’m okay with not knowing why or when I can do it.  Is that how it is for you?”

 “It’s a gift.  Songs just blow up. ” (big hand motion)

 “They do.  And it never gets dull.” 

 “It only gets dull if you’re bored.”

 “I’m never bored.”

 “What’s your name?”

 “Andrew Karnavas.”

 “Andrew, Sterling.” He extended his hand, and I shook it.  We have equally gigantic, awkward hands.

 “Do you play piano?” I asked.

 “Recently I practiced piano, ten sessions straight, one hour each.”

 “I’ve been trying to learn but have trouble with my left hand.  I broke my pinkie and ring finger in the past and they give me trouble.”

 “That’s NO excuse.  You can do anything you want.  There’s only trouble because YOU MAKE IT TROUBLE.”

 “I guess you’re right.   It’s a mental thing.”

 “DON’T THINK, just play.  So you broke two fingers?  So WHAT?  Then you have a way of playing that is unique to YOU.”

 “That’s an even better way to put it.”

 “I recorded with a guitar player who worked at a pressing plant.  He had all of his fingers on his picking hand except for his thumb and index finger sliced off in a pressing machine, and he was INCREDIBLE at guitar, an AMAZING player.”  Jandek was leaning toward me over the bar counter. “YOU CAN  DO ANYTHING YOU WANT.  Fuck the world.”

 I laughed at his intensity because it hit close to home, then said,“I get what you mean, there are no limits.  I need to practice more though.”

 “Practice is stupid.  Well, not stupid, it has its place.  I’m more of an off-the-cuff kind of guy.”

 “What about touring?  Where do you like to go in the US?  I’m about to go on tour with my band Runaway Sun in February.”

 “Where?  The South?  Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia…”

 “Yes, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.”

 “You going to Mobile?”

 “We were planning on it, yes.”

 “I like Mobile.  It’s a great town.  Beautiful place.”

 “Any venues you recommend there?”

 He shrugged his shoulders.

 “Just go there.”

 “Do you have any shows coming up?”

 “Baltimore this month.  I’m playing in Lisbon January 23rd.”

 “My birthday is January 21st, need an opener?”

 He laughed, but never answered my question.   Monica talked to him for a much longer period of time, but wow, plenty of  lessons/validated convictions in this conversation:

 1)      There are no rules.  You can play any instrument any way you want.  You can do anything you want.

2)      Songwriting is out of our control.  The songs will show up whenever they want, just keep the door open.

3)      I’m off to a good start, and yes, the musical arrangements I’m working out for the solo should be driving me nuts.

4)      It’s okay to have other lives.  Don’t let the dayjobs/any awkward fitting hats you wear get you down or ever stop you from making music.

5)      I’m not the only one with creepy spider fingers.

 Sweet relief.  To talk to a man who has spent a lifetime writing music, has had many lives, and to hear that it’s okay.  It’s one thing to get the okay from people who don’t write music because we musicians can play the “you’re not a musician, you don’t understand” card, but we all know that’s not true.  Non-musicians have other things they spend a lifetime doing that matter to them as much as music to a musician.  But as a musician,  to hear it from a guy in his sixties who has written sixty one albums (with number sixty two on the way) and performed all over the world, it’s like getting a sneak peek at the deep end and realizing that not only is it endless, but it’s a place of benevolence.  Discouragement doesn’t exist!  There is a beautiful struggle, but no need for discouragement.  Will I write 61 albums worth of music in my lifetime?  Who knows.  What I do know is that we write songs because we enjoy writing them and we can’t help but do it, and while we’re in the neighborhood, we do our best to make them sound their best, with all the instruments they need (or don’t need).

 And so I ask you, what do you love to do?  Do you do it every day?  You should. 

Many lives and many dreams,



For more on Jandek, visit:






Filed under Special Shows

18 responses to “A Conversation with Jandek, “Sterling Smith”

  1. Ray Chung

    Enjoyed this piece, Andrew. Keep safe, stay up, good luck to you and your band.

  2. He seems to be very giving toward his fans. I’m very glad he seems so down to earth, even if it takes away a bit of the myth, you still have to admire his drive.

  3. Benjamin

    do you really think Jandek would say it is okay to publish this private conversation?

    • It was an incredibly inspiring conversation, unscheduled, at a bar. I posted this to show my respect for one of the most fearless songwriters out there, it would be selfish to keep it to myself when so many songwriters can benefit from what he has to say.

  4. Tim

    If I want to talk about a conversation I have with someone, I can see no reason (short of legal blockage) why I shouldn’t. Sterling Smith is a human being, not some divine creature regarding whom any question of his motivations, etc. must be answered with ‘I am that I am’.

  5. cstopshelf

    I got lost in the blog thinking this was sneaky
    Interesting your recollection of the conversation, maybe you recorded and transcribed, right? Nice
    You got him though, he never suspected you to blog out his personal views, and of course you never asked. Even got a pic.
    Pat yourself on the back, but be careful there’s not
    much backbone there.

  6. Looks to me like this conversation took place in a public place with other people close enough to hear (as someone photographed it happening). I don’t see the big deal. Good post Andrew.

  7. Steve Skafte

    Thanks for this, man. Regardless of what some people are saying, there’s nothing wrong with posting this. If you have an interesting conversation, you tell other people about it. Simple as that. It’s very cool of you.

  8. This is interesting, but not necessarily because of anything Jandek contributed to the conversation – rather, in lieu of the liberties which were taken. The individual in question may identify himself in a personal context as “Sterling”, but to the general public, and in the context of his art, he has always chosen to identify himself as “Jandek”. Jandek has obviously always avoided making public commentary, and the blogger is certainly aware of this.

    The blogger never mentioned that he had a blog, or had the intent to “publish” the conversation, which in this context seems oddly akin to some form of bootlegging. Whether or not he thought it was an interesting conversation doesn’t really entitle him to try and recreate it, verbatim, for mass consumption.

    There seems to be a common (key word here) perception of entitlement these days, in that everything one does is fair game for documentation and public dissemination. This undermines an artists’ own right to edit their work/commentary as they see fit. Apparently no one is entitled to privacy anymore.

  9. david ames

    You violated his privacy. You are a lowlife.

  10. woomia

    As inspiring as this all might have been, I would say you violated his privacy. I won’t call you a lowlife but I would think twice before doing something like this again.

  11. hey come now we’re talking about a dude whose early albums were largely comprised of tracks featuring people who most likely weren’t aware that they were going to end up on records, i don’t think publishing one conversation is gonna tick him off too much

  12. Dave Ramsey

    Your narcissism in posting this knows no bounds – what a shameful group of words, so incredibly disrespectful – Andrew Karnavas is indeed a self-serving scumbag hipster.

  13. Pingback: The Gospel According To Presents…It’s Not The Band I Hate, It’s Their Fans: A Look At The Culture Of Jandek | Culture Fusion Reviews

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