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.Continue reading