- February 2015 -
HAVE A BEER WITH SMALL HOUSES
Small Houses is the alternative country project of Philadelphia-based musician Jeremy Quentin. His new record, Still Talk; Second City, was born over the course of eight months in Atlanta, where he worked odd jobs, slept in his car, wrote at all-night restaurants and recorded with producer Damon Moon. Jeremy has lived in more than a handful of cities — 12 to be exact — and the album is a reaction to time spent in these places. It speaks to the love, the indefinite stays and the many “second cities” of his life.
We met with Jeremy before his February show at Schubas Tavern, where we chatted about poetry versus songwriting, the effect of constant movement and a special place called Fergie’s Pub.
The Show: Small Houses with Jared Bartman and Cold Country at Schubas // Feb. 16, 2015
Drinks of Choice: Jameson and a shot of PBR
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: You were quick with your “drink of choice” response.
Jeremy Quentin of Small Houses: I know exactly what I like and it’s those two drinks. If I'm off the road and I just got out of work or I just finished a set, the first thing I do is order a Jameson and a PBR. I start out by drinking three quarters of the Jameson in one gulp, then I sip on the PBR and sip on the Jameson. In Philadelphia, we call that The Citywide.
Jeremy: Yeah. If you go up and say, “Let me get a Citywide with a Jameson and a lager,” they’ll know exactly what you mean. The Citywide stands for “The Citywide Special.” Not every bar, but most bars in Philadelphia have it. Some places have more expensive ones, like a Stella and a shot of Macallan…
Kristen:Nah, that's bad. Give me the cheap stuff. There is a singer-songwriter named David Ramirez who has played at a venue I work at…I don’t know if you’re familiar with him…
Jeremy: Huge fan.
Kristen: I can’t remember if he ordered one at the venue or if another artist was commenting on the fact that he always orders them, but we decided someone should call that special “The David Ramirez”in Chicago.
Jeremy: It's true. I've been in many a city ordering that with him. We should call it “The Ramirez.”
Kristen: I’m going to start using it. I bet it will catch on.
Jeremy: I think you're right.
Kristen: So, you “permanently” reside in Philadelphia now. How long have you been there, and how did you get there in the first place?
Jeremy: I got to Philadelphia a couple of years ago. I've been in and out constantly living in other cities, going back to Philly, going on tour, going back there. I grew up in Flint, Michigan, but I moved away for college. When it came time for where I lived to be my choice, I knew I wanted to go to Philadelphia.
Kristen: Why did you choose it?
Jeremy: Whenever I played there on tour, I’d leave the next day and wish I had more time. The next tour, I'd save myself two free days in Philly, and then four days, and then I found myself staying in Philadelphia for two weeks, and then a month, and then eventually I just said, “I'm moving to Philadelphia.”
Kristen: And why have you stayed?
Jeremy: Well, I moved there because of the people. If you asked me what my favorite thing about the city is, my first five answers would be my friends. Most of my friends live in South Philadelphia, Fishtown or Northern Liberties. But when I went there, I moved right to West Philadelphia. Almost every house there was built in the 1800s or early 1900s — all of them five stories high — with the trees two times higher. There are platforms off the street like, “This is where you get off your horse and carriage.” Nothing has changed and it's so remarkably beautiful. I remember going there and saying, “I'm going to move here and in five years, there's no way I'm going to be able to afford it.” I moved there, and there's no way I could get a place in West Philadelphia now. I can't afford it.
Kristen: Let’s say you have a free night in Philly. What’s your go-to spot?
Jeremy: Well, every Monday and Wednesday we all meet at an Irish place downtown. I couldn't remember the name of it yesterday because I've spent about 400 nights there, and sometimes I don't even think I reference it by name.
Kristen: It’s just that place you always go to.
Jeremy: Yeah. It’s called Fergie’s. I know the guy who owns it, Fergie, really well. It’s on the edge of the gayborhood in Center City. All my friends are bartenders there, and the open mic upstairs is a room maybe twice the size of this greenroom.
Kristen: So really small then.
Jeremy: Yeah. This is probably kind of a secret, but on any given night, you can get some good, prominent bands coming in. A lot of musicians on tour will come in and try out new stuff. Sometimes special guests host. It's also half comedy. It's just stacked. And it’s definitely a listening crowd. You only get to play two songs, so generally we can squeeze in about eighteen people.
Kristen:Over the course of how many hours?
Jeremy: Usually four or five hours. If you play, Allie will buy you a drink. Allie Jonas: That’s her thing. She’s the bartender every Monday night. She used to host it, run sound and bartend. She hustled it. Then she started bringing in more people. Allie’s a local songwriter. Some nights she'll be running the bar and say, “Hold on a second” and hop on stage. Every time I play she sings with me, so she’ll walk out from behind the bar and perform my set with me.
Kristen: I love places like that: where it feels like you’re family.
Jeremy: When I walk into Fergie's, it feels so comfortable that I’ll throw my keys on one table, my cell phone on another, my wallet somewhere else. I figure no one's taking anything. It’s kind of a home.
Kristen: On your new record, Still Talk; Second City, a few songs reference Illinois. Is the album title a reference to Chicago?
Jeremy: It is and it isn't. I'll say “Illinois” a million times on the record. I was referencing Chicago the first time that “Second City” popped into my mind. Then it expanded into an idea of what we mean when we say “home”. When I say home, I could be talking about two things: Home in Flint, Michigan — where I haven't lived in 10 years — or I could be saying home in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is “Second City” for me. On the album, there's a lot of talk about the time between being 17 and however long it takes to find yourself somewhere else. It takes a long time to find that “second city.” And now, I’ve had so many of them.
Kristen: Would you say then that home is a fluid thing for you?
Jeremy: It kind of has to be. I would call Philadelphia my home now because I have the most pride of the time that I’ve spent there. The people I love the most are there. But I was in Denver for two months and I was in Atlanta before that. It does change, really.
Kristen:Do you mind me asking why you moved so much? Were you just following your gut instincts about where to go?
Jeremy: Life got insane sometimes... It was scary the first four times. But I've lived in 12 cities now. And moving doesn't bug me. I went to Atlanta to make this record because I met producer Damon Moon. I’m sure I'll go back there to make another one with him. When I was done in Atlanta I toured, and the tour ended in South Dakota. I thought to myself, What's close to South Dakota? I had a gig in L.A. in three months, so I figured, I’ll just go to Denver. I got there, and I had a job within six hours. I lived in my car. Slept in there every night for about two-and-a-half or three months.
Kristen: Wow. That’s crazy.
Jeremy: That's just the way it was. I made friends. The nice thing is…when I go back to Denver I've got 20 friends that will come out to a gig. That's worked in a ton of places.
Kristen: I admire that so much because I'm so terrified of doing it.Do you feel like it spurred your creativity to be on the road?
Jeremy: It's interesting. I don't have any sort of explanation about what makes me feel creative at the times I do. I don't know if constant movement does it. I'm sure it does, but I think that becomes exhaustive, and then I beg for a place to stay for just a short while, for a month or so. That one place will inspire creativity, and somewhere near the end of the month I feel like I need to get out of there. I need to move around again. That re-energizes me. Most of what I do, I don't call it travel. It’s work. I'm playing gigs every night. I've played 21 gigs in the past 21 days. The days and the time I get off with friends — that’s for traveling.
Kristen: You’re a poet in addition to a songwriter. Did you initially write poetry, which morphed into song? Or was it the other way around?
Jeremy: Writing in general came first, although mostly directionless. Then I heard songs, probably Paul Simon songs, where I noticed that there was a higher level of writing. At that time I was 9 or so, and books didn't necessarily speak to me the way songs did. Then poetry came.
Kristen:Poetry can be a little intimidating at first. I think songwriting is a nice entry into the form.
Jeremy: Yeah. I went through the steps like everyone else. I read the Beatniks when I was a teenager.
Kristen: Alan Ginsberg? I’m guessing you read “Howl.”
Jeremy: Yeah, I had a substitute teacher give me “Howl” when I was 13.
Kristen: You read it when you were 13?
Jeremy: Absolutely. I was reading Kerouac at the time.
Kristen: What did you read, On the Road?
Jeremy: Yeah, but Dharma Bums was my favorite at the time. I actually just re-read Big Sur. But yeah, it was always poetry first. I played bass in punk bands and I didn't think I was going to be a songwriter. I was just a poet and a bass player for fun. I definitely didn’t pay as close attention to songwriting as I should have. The songwriting part didn't come until way, way later. I thought I would be a writer.
Jeremy: A writer, yeah. Especially as I dug deeper into poetry.
Kristen: Did you ever think about pursuing it as a career?
Jeremy: In writing?
Jeremy: Yeah… I don't know what stopped me. Every year I'd say, “This is the year I put out my chapbook.” You know what I mean? I was going to publish it with lyrics from my songs, my own poems…And every year I don't fucking do it.
Kristen: What do you think has stopped you?
Jeremy: With music…I don't know what it is, but you kind of get to hide behind it. When I pick up the guitar I feel confident, and I can say anything I want. If it’s just me and my words, I get intimidated by it. Which is weird, because I'm not insecure about it at all. I always finish something, the rough draft of a chapbook for example, and I think to myself, “In three years, I'm going to be so much fucking better at this.”
Kristen: But you don't do that with songwriting?
Jeremy: No, I just feel good about the songs. I don't know how to explain it. When I write something, sometimes I go track it that night, and because of that repetition of having a gig all the time, you become really used to the words it came with, and you find new meaning in what you already wrote.
Kristen: I think creative writing, especially poetry, is like any other form. It’s about practice and the process. I think if you want to be a poet, you have to write poetry every day. If you want to be a fiction writer, you have to write fiction every day. Maybe because you're writing songs every day instead of poems, poetry feels less natural. And when it feels less natural it’s more intimidating.
Jeremy: When I was in Atlanta I wrote poetry a lot, but now that I'm writing for another record, I haven’t done it in months. I still read a lot of poetry. I think if I sat down and focused on writing poems it could work…But I don’t know how that’s going to happen because I like writing songs so much.
Kristen:You released your recent record only six days ago, and you mentioned you’re working on writing new songs.
Jeremy: Absolutely. I started writing the day the last one got mastered. They sent it to me, I listened to it once, said, “Sounds good,” and I haven't heard it since, except when I play live. I just had to start writing the next one.
Kristen:Were there any songs on Still Talk; Second City that were particularly challenging?
Jeremy: It depends on what you mean. Challenging how?
Kristen: Creatively challenging. Maybe you went into the studio with one thing in mind and came out with something totally different.
Jeremy: The only thing I look back on differently is the song “Revel,” and I think it’s because I’m on tour now and I’m playing it every night. It’s a full band kind of rocker on the record, but when I play it alone, I think more and more: “Man, maybe I should have just done that one alone.” That’s the only one on the record that I look back on. I don't think about that record too much anymore, except for the fact that I play it every night. I think there are more moments on the record that I’m proud of than anything else.
Kristen: What are some of those moments?
Jeremy: There's this nine- or 10-minute-long song on the second half of the record. It includes “Introduction,” “Smileboy” and “Still Talk.” It’s my favorite production style, and I don’t know what you’d call it in poetry, but it’s like having a three-part poem. Those three songs are so fluid and they move like a story. I’m particularly proud of that moment. But “South, Southern” is my favorite song on the record. Best words I’ve ever written.
Kristen: I agree. I really love that song. So, it sounds like the arrangement of the songs on the record were very intentional.
Jeremy: Yeah. Damon and I started working more on order later in the record because we wanted to allow the songs to connect. I knew “Introduction,” “Smileboy,” and “Still Talk” would be connected in some way. But I thought “Introduction” would be the first song on the record, hence the title. But then I thought it would be more fun to be able to start the record over again on Side B. In terms of timing and arrangement, the entire album was all definitely formatted for vinyl. The amount of music on Side A and Side B is almost evenly distributed.
Later, when the songs began to take shape, we cut about nine songs off the record. We started restructuring it and I thought, Well, if we put this song, which is in this key, after that one, we could take this other part of the song we cut and fill it in there. Then, we can make a transition between the two so that we wouldn't have to get rid of this thing we really like.
Kristen: Yeah, there are a lot of transitions.
Jeremy: Yeah, for the most part of Side A, there just isn't silence. There's always something that's connecting the songs. Damon and I are geeks in the studio.
Kristen: How did you find him as a producer?
Jeremy: Originally, we met at The Cottage, which is a recording studio in Atlanta. I first went in there when it was just as much a music venue as it was a studio. I don't think they've had a show in a year. They've had listening parties, but it's a tiny room that only fits about 15 people. I played there my first night in Atlanta. I had two days off, and he said, “I'm building this studio upstairs. Do you want to spend the day recording together?” I said, “Absolutely.” We did the earliest version of a song that ended up on the record called “Old Habits.” When he sent the song to me weeks later, I loved it. I liked everything he did, and I said, “I don't have any money. And I know you're just starting, so can we work together?” He said, “Absolutely.” I moved to Atlanta specifically to work with him.
By the time I got there, they had four times the amount of gear and soundproofing. They had figured the space out as a studio — much more than they originally had. They take it really seriously down there in that studio. Actually, all of Atlanta takes it really seriously.
Kristen: What’s the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you've done in the past year?
Jeremy: Well, I can name every skilled position of any football team in the NFL. And I can name every active player on the Detroit Lions.
Kristen: I don't mean this in an offensive way, but you don't seem like a guy who would be into sports.
Jeremy: I think football is the most exciting thing in the world. I love it. I left the gig last night and I drove three-and-a-half hours here. I got here at 4:30 in the morning, and I listened to sports radio the whole way. I haven't listened to a record in a week, which I need to fucking change. I listened to The Districts’ record three times a day for a while there.
Kristen: That record is amazing.
Jeremy: The Districts are the best fucking band in America. But yeah, Sports Talk radio. It’s nerdy but I can name every skilled position — so every quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and then a lot of defensive players' names — on every team.
Kristen: Poetry and football.
Jeremy: That's what I'm into: poems and football. I find as I grow up, I love smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, running six miles every morning, reading poetry, watching football…
Kristen: Anything that contradicts itself. Chugging a beer, taking a shot.
Jeremy: Boom. Yep, there you go.
Kristen: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Jeremy: I wish I had a clever answer for this. But I always really liked the idea of, “Always make sure you're the dumbest guy in the room.” It’s the thought that you should surround yourself with really intelligent people. More personally, my grandpa always quoted Lincoln: “Whatever you are, be a good one.” That’s been important to me: especially in a world where my lifestyle is not accepted by most of my family.
Jeremy: Yeah, I mean, not in a heartbreaking way. They just don't get it. I know things will be fine as long as I try to do the best for myself.
Kristen: Do you think your family’s unacceptance of your lifestyle comes out of a place of worry?
Jeremy: Yeah. I fucking live in my car, you know? I come from a place of privilege, and I've just totally chosen to throw that in the trash. They hate that. They would give me everything if I asked for it, you know what I mean, and I totally don't ... I want this. But I can’t do this and have that as well. I won’t accept privilege unless I’ve earned it. You’ve got to earn your keep.