Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (January, 2004). Art direction by W.T. Nelson
BROTHER FROM THIS PLANET
Hallucinogens, Ukrainian Catholicism, Nascar town alienation and the Beatles helped make BROTHER JT the homegrown musical genius he is. Jay Babcock interviews America’s least-known national treasure.
Don’t miss the sidebar: David Katznelson explores the Brother JT discography
“A good myth or poem…addresses our appetitive anarchies, and offers safe conduct to some life-enhancing energy by giving it a name; and a bad one does the opposite, ‘binding with briars my joys and desires.’ But in the absence of an authoritative myth or poem, the lights simply go out and the soul is closed down: no name, no game. In other words, we have to play; and if we refuse, our robotic bodies are simply wired up by this week’s television commercials.” — Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War, Dudley Young
Not to get too evangelical—although given his name and interests, perhaps some fervor is only appropriate—but both the prodigious output and the career-shape of the man they call Brother JT offers just the type of myths and poems, in song and words and drawings and deed, that Mr. Young is yapping about here.
Listen to the beautiful smeared mess—homemade and lush and voluptuous—that is Maybe Should We Take Some More?, one of the two albums JT released in 2001: noise-covered melodic pop; flute-and-tambourine folk; pastoral instrumental epics; dubspace recorders self-replicating into Jajouka horns; Hendrix jamming in Bombay with street musicians, remixed by Cabaret Voltaire; and so on. And that’s just one album—there are many more where that came from (see David Katznelson’s excellent sidebar). This is boundary-dissolving, spirit-ennobling music: aural stuff that can help you as you hang out in back in the garden of your mind.
Brother JT was born John Terlesky in 1962 in Easton, Pennsylvania. Starting in the mid-‘80s Terleskey lead The Original Sins, whose mission, he notes on his website, was to “ merge pop and garage/punk, taking inspiration from the Lyres, Buzzcocks, Stooges, and that whole ‘Paisley Underground’ thing from the early ’80’s.” The Sins continued to record albums through the ‘90s, but beginning in the early part of that decade, Terlesky began to releasing solo records under the “Brother JT” moniker. ( “Brother JT” is a nickname given to him by underground journo/advocate (and now-Arthur columnist) Byron Coley after hearing JT’s Descent, which, JT says, was “kind of my version of Coltrane’s Ascension, only it was supposed to be Jesus descending into hell while he was dead and freeing the saints or something. And side 2, ‘Kabbalah,’ was pretty much an acid Gregorian chant with just voices. I think he felt the music sounded like the work of some twisted monk or something…just kind of stuck.”)
On the phone from Easton (where he’s living again after a 12-year-interim in nearby Bethlehem), JT is soft-spoken, funny, precise and open, with a disarmingly humble matter-of-factness; when I ask him how he’s managed to put food on the table through all these years of limited commercial success as a musician, he mentions one of his favorite jobs: “I drove a newspaper delivery truck in the afternoons, throwing bundles out for kids …. A lot of songs came out of that route.” Of course: Brother JT delivers.
I opened our conversation with some remarks about That’s Life, a set of harrowing spoken-word (the Brother had to rap!) pieces JT recorded sometime in the early ‘90s that could be described as Bitter Surrealist. They’re stamped with the same inventive, humorous spirit that marks all of JT’s work, but these rants’ bad-trip, freaked-out disgust seem miles away from the more, shall we say, positive outlook of his recent albums…
Arthur: You sound so angry on that spoken word CD.
Brother JT: I was probably a lot more angry then than I am now. When you’re younger you have this block that makes you think that there’s just no hope at all–basically you keep going but you always just think you’re practically at the verge of something or other. A lot of the early stuff that I did was a purging of sorts. What I didn’t know then was that things might work out okay. [chuckles] Not that they have per se, but they have worked out better than I thought they would.
I wrote them in a fever of… automatic writing, trying to get some sort of a subconscious thing going and connect with what I thought might be my subconsicous. But you really don’t know–there‘s a lot of things going around there all the time. Usually you edit your thoughts. In this case I just tried to let it spill out, and that was the result. Those were done on a mic in my room in Bethlehem, trying to do em without any breaks. If I tried to do a spoken word thing now, it would be a lot more soooooothing, make it a little more positive, and not just drop this on people.
Somewhere, probably around the mid-’90s, I started thinking that whatever creative process I do, I’d better try to think in a little more positive way, because a lot of the songs that I had written with a negative tone had sort of come true! [chuckles] I felt like it sort of comes back on you, or it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, or something. And also, just getting older, you feel like you’ve got all this off your chest. You’ve been doing it for ten years–ten years is enough for expurgating all these demons–you should be out of demons by now. I’m not, but I do feel more of a responsibility to try to make some things of beauty too, and not just all this catharsis.
There’s all these religious references in your work: your band was called the Original Sins, you have these kitschy photos on your covers of religious iconography and roadside graphics and son. Yet it’s obviously not completely a wink, or scornful—there’s a huge spiritual element in your work. And you lived in a town called Bethlehem for 12 years. What exactly is your religious background?
I was raised Ukranian Catholic which is very close to being Eastern Catholic but not quite. It’s still under the Pope. It’s the next best thing to being a Byzantine or whatever. I went to catechism, and had holy communion. I went to church up to my early teens, and then it just fell away. But, as I’m sure a lot of younger people experience, it stays with you–maybe moreso than if you were Protestant or something, where it’s not such a big deal and there’s not so much ceremony involved and not so much attention paid to this kind of mystery thing going on. Which always appealed to me.
Over the years I’ve gone back and forth between thinking that there might be something to this and thinking Well, no, I doubt it. Somewhere along the way I consciously decided, There’s gotta be something more. There’s gotta be a little more to this than just happenstance. I think I forced myself to start thinking along the lines of spirituality, if only to enrich my life. My upbringing definitely played a role in all that. The masses are ingrained in me from when I was a kid: there was a lot of incense, a lot of droning kind of hymns in Ukrainian. It was spooky. Very spooky. And when that gets in you when you’re a kid, you don’t ever really dispose of it. The Christ story is there in you, almost like a universal archetype. So it gets to be where you don’t know whether it’s really something real or if it’s just inculcated in you to that extent, that it has become a reality of belief, or faith.
Your records and writings are rants are pretty open about your interest in hallucinogenic drugs. Did they play a role in this spiritual opening up you’re talking about?
Yeah, but I think just sort of getting through life teaches a lot of things about the possibilities. Just things that happen where you would have to say, There’s gotta be a point to this because why else did these things happen. There seems to be some kind of scheme, one that anyone could see, something where most people would say, There’s a lesson to be learned here.
But yeah, hallucinogenics were kind of an opening back open of a door that I’d shut during my teenage years. I was a very straight teenager, and really only got into hallucinogens in my early 20s. It had a profound effect: something similar to flipping a switch in your brain that had been switched to ‘off’ onto ‘on.’ You know, thinking, ‘Geez, no wonder all this stuff is the way it is.’ A lot of people these days probably don’t even need it. But for me, given the upbringing I had… [chuckles] I came up in the ‘70s, you know? Which, to me, like having layers of brown and orange gauze taped over my head. I remember being completely clueless as a kid and a teenager and THIS was a big revelation. Whereas I think maybe kids these days are just sorta like Eh, so what. Or that they already know, and they don’t need any help in knowing that there is sort of a oneness in things. It’s not so much of a revelation. Maybe just bred into them now. I hope so! I I really do sense that there’s evolution taking place–I don’t know in exactly which direction: outward, or inward, or what. But people do seem a little different than when I started out in my observations.
I was the last of four children, and I was significantly younger than the others. It was almost like being an only child, to an extent, because by the time I was coherent they were pretty much out of the house. My parents were both 39 years older than me when I was born. There’s a major gap there. They were great people, my mom’s a great person, and so was my dad, but there were certain things they just couldn’t relate to, and certain things I couldn’t relate to with them. So there was a certain amount of alienation from the start. I probably had a pretty good intelligence as a kid, I did pretty well in school, but I think as a result of being kind of in my own world a lot of the time, became alienated from everything. I can’t say I had a terrible childhood or anything but I just missed out on a lot of it because I was so withdrawn. When that happens I suppose it just builds up in you like wondering what all this stuff is about that other people are doing. [chuckles] As I said, the ‘70s had built up a lot of frustration in me. It’s like American society was in its teenage years then too: people didn’t really know what was going on. They were getting all these shocks from Watergate and Vietnam and so on, which resulted in this slightly off-kilter, out-of-control culture. I think it’s finally kind of righted itself to an extent. It’s a lot more sophisticated these days. I don’t envy kids these days, certainly–in a way, I probably had it a lot easier, but… Also, I never developed this easyness with people that I see in a lot of people. If you’re like that, you get left out of a lot of things. And that probably built up a good deal of frustration which eventually came out via music.
How did you end up doing music with a band–making records, performing in front of an audience and so on–if you were so lonely and alienated?
My brother Greg, the next youngest, showed me some barre chords on the guitar when I was about 15 and I just kinda fell in love with certain kinds of music. I was big into the Beatles when I was a kid. And instead of going to college, I went to a school for audio engineering. I’d started to write some songs by then, it was just the year out of high school, and one of the projects was you had to record songs. I thought, Well I might as well do one of mine. It showed me that gee, I can do this. It wasn’t that hard. But it took me a few years to get up enough contacts or whatever to actually get into a working, or a group. It was like ‘83 or ‘84 when I started playing bass in some minor groups and eventually switched to guitar again.
It was just a process. Music had always been around. I remember my brothers getting Beatles albums when they came out in the late ‘60s, I was only 6 or 7 maybe, but I still remember listening to The White Album and just being thoroughly entranced by this stuff, like ‘this is the only group in the world,’ and ‘they make the only music in the world.’ It’s a very good album for kids, actually. There’s a lot of good stuff for kids there, and also a lot of scary stuff. That probably had a [chuckles] profound effect on me too. mind-wise.
But you never moved to a bigger town to try and get your music career going…
I never did have any desire to move to a city even if it would have made more sense because it would have been so much more expensive. We could pretty much go there for the shows, anyway. There were a whole lot of showcase shows in New York. Nothing really came of it. But we went through that mill and eventually just gave up trying. I was in Bethlehem that whole time. People in the group had lives too, y’know. It was never like a real working band. It was an unusual situation, dictated probably by my own lack of ambition. [chuckles] But not lack of ambition to write songs. Just lack of ambition to do the things necessary in order to make it a working band.
So where you live, is it rural or…?
I’m living in the heart of NASCAR country. We’ve got a speedway in Nazareth. That’s where Mario Andretti lives. It’s kind of that sensibility. [chuckles] It’s that kind of area: it’s an older area, people know what they like, and are a little bit set in their ways, probably. It’s pretty alienating, but…. Maybe to understand why I never moved away, it would help for me to explain my character… I go where the wind blows, you know? And basically it’s just not very windy. [chuckles] It has not been a very windy life for me.
I read all the existentialist stuff in high school and it seemed like kind of a dead end. I was really looking for something that made sense to me. I got this Alan Watts translation, this Dao Te Ching thing. I lapped that right up, cuz I was already pretty lazy. It said ‘The best good is to flow like water’ or something like that, and to NOT try to make things happen, but just to let things happen to you, to become part of things and all that. And that’s really been my guiding…anti-philosophy. It was the one thing that really made sense to me. As a practical guiding premise for the way I’ve led my life, that probably was pretty instrumental. Not to say I’m a Daoist, or I take it really seriously, but just to develop into that kind of being was something I probably was interested in doing.
As a result, it’s sort of like, if somebody HAD called me up and said, and even today, you have an opportunity to live in Madagascar at a parrot plantation, you have to feed the parrots, that’s your job, I’d probably do it, if they said Why don’t you do it? [chuckles] I am completely passive type of a guy. I’d say Well okay, sure. But as it is no one ever gave me the opportunity, and nothing ever really came up to say, Well you know why don’t you join our band out here in Portland or something or Florida or whatever, so I just kinda stuck, waiting for the Universe to move me, rather than me moving the universe.
But you still say in NASCAR territory. It’s not aggravating, alienating enough to move?
Well it gets a bit much sometimes but really I’m not sure where I’d fit in. [chuckles] I really don’t know. I’ve never fit into any group, I never felt particularly at home anywhere that I’ve visited, and thought, Gee I could really see myself living here, moreso than where I live. That’s another thing about that, it’s like saying it really doesn’t matter where you are, it’s where your mind is. I’m not sure what the exact phrase is. That probably partly somehow explains it.
The cover for your new record is a close-up of a crucifix. And the title is Hang in There, Baby…
I hope people don’t take that the wrong way. It’d be very easy to think, Oh he’s being a wiseguy saying to Jesus, Hang in there baby. But it’s more like me saying–to everybody–including him–to just hang in there and not… It was like a lot of the album covers I ended up with, the image came first and then the title. I saw that photo that April had taken and I thought, I gotta use it, and then it occurred to me that would be a good hook there. If you hear the music, I think you’d know that that [denigrating Christ] is not where I’m coming from. On the back, there’s a guy we saw in Austin when we were there driving through town on Good Friday and the guy evidently wheels along this cross probably every Good Friday. I don’t know how far he was going, but… It just seemed to fit in.
You used a title from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon for one of your albums. Are you a fan of her work?
I didn’t even see Meshes of the Afternoon, til after I had used the title. [chuckles] I’d seen the title and a still from the film, of Maya looking out the window, in a book about avant garde film that I’d been reading. I had no idea what it was about but it just struck me, so I made up in my mind what it would be about. [chuckles] I liked the title.
Maybe We Should Take Some More is like a survey of different kinds of psychedelic music from around the world. There are parts on it that remind me of the Jajouka musicians from Morocco, and so on. Are you familiar with that stuff?
Oh yeah. That and parts of this other record I did called Holy Ghost Stories back in the mid-’90s were sort of an attempt at making the suburban middle-class equivalent of bush folk recordings. Just trying to get that spirit into it. I had this album, just incredible stuff, called The Secret Museum of Mankind, that had an influence to an extent, cuz these pieces were all real short and crudely recorded, but they’d really got something down there. This was from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Just incredible things, incredible sounds.
What are you listening to right now?
Usually I listen more to stuff in my car. Right now I’ve got a tape of Lee Perry, a tape of fairly obscure ska reggae stuff, dub stuff…and also I made a tape of recent hip-hop stuff that I listen to a lot, the more progressive stuff like KAOS and Outkast and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The stuff where you can tell there’s some brains behind it. All the other stuff I have no interest in. That stuff really moves me. It’s touching to see people literally trying to turn a culture around with music. I think that’s wonderful. So much music is for nothing, you know? Just to make money.
To me that’s the only stuff currently going on that seems like it’s moving anywhere, to be blunt. It’s not just those artists, cuz I don’t know enough about it to really speak like… But as far as futuristic music, stuff that I think where music probably should be going by now, a lot of that hip-hop stuff seems like the way. Maybe even moreso than techno, which WISHES it was that.
And there’s probably a Neil Young tape in the car, too.
If someone unfamiliar with your thing showed up at a Brother JT3 gig, what would it seem like to them?
If you’re talking about the full-band thing, usually in the last couple of years I’ve ended up having four people. Another guitarist, usually, one of the two guys that are featured on Hang in There Baby. Some people would think it’s kinda jammy–you know, there’s really rudimentary songs, basic chords, raw-sounding, and there’s this guy up front, he’s kinda pudgy and he’s got kinda straight hair, hee looks like he’s been drinking, maybe. [Jay laughs] He’ll start playing guitar or singing. The one thing that stands out probably is just how much I try. [chuckles] Maybe more so than is fashionable at this point. I really try to put it out there, either singing or guitar-wise. Usually it’s just three-chord songs, the songs are usually something to do with some kind of spiritual concern, and we just get into some two-guitar freakout thing while bass and drums are bashing away. You get into interesting things. It’s not like a jam group doing a blues jam, it’s more like trying to find holes in the sound and trying to go against rhythm, soloing, and get it… trying to get close in our own half-assed way to some kind of jazz thing. Like free jazz. If it’s a good night. [laughs] There have been some reallly beautiful nights over the last couple of years but it’s sorta like what mood’s the lead singer’s in, you know? [chuckles] It’s lightning in a bottle. There have been great, great nights. Usually I’d start with a capella version of some old folk song and then kind of work our way into … People would probably recognize a garage element that’s always been in my music. But also heavy psych via these very loud screaming guitars.
You’ve been doing a traditional folk song or two on each of your recent albums. Is that a recent interest?
It’s more recent. I used to know some old particularly blues things, I was always into acoustic blues. But more recently, I think when I was out west back in ‘98, somebody let me borrow the Harry Smith thing that had a lot of these songs came through, particularly the [inaud] ones that I did, or re-did. It struck me that this was a way that maybe the songs could be realized in a different way. Not taking anything away from the wonderful originals, just like…if you’re gonna do a cover, you might as well bring something to it, and I thought I could do something. They suggested themselves to me that way, heavy guitar for some reason.
There’s songs on that Anthology that when I hear them, or when I sing them, I still get chills down my back. I know there must be something about those songs. I think it is a connection back to something we lost contact with through all this crap that we’ve surrounded ourselves with. Those people didn’t have anything back then. They were probably surrounded by all this mystery that to them was probably de rigeur, you know? It’s a wonderful thing. I think there’s not much mystery left in the world, and these people seemed to be kind of hooked into it.
They were confronting, or dealing with, the Mystery in those songs, whereas we’re sort of distracted from it.
I think somewhere along the way people got angry at this Mystery, or whatever you wanna call it–this other-ness of the world–and just decided to content themselves with worldly things. This society really plays that up, makes it a very seductive thing to just be eaten up by all that. And yet when you dip back into that well, it’s unmistakable that there’s something there. And it’s a valuable thing, I think.
That’s just one way. That music is just one way. There’s a lot of great music and great things that can take you back into that Possibility that people have ruled out for so long. I wish I could make something as good. [chuckles] That’s one what I’m shooting for eventually. It probably will just take a long time but at least it’s to have something to look forward to.