I called Jandek's label with some questions
On Friday I called the number for Corwood Industries, which exists to propagate the work of reclusive Houston musician Jandek. Corwood released only one album attributed to anyone not named Jandek, which was the label’s first. When Ready For The House came out in 1978, the record sleeve suggested it was made by The Units. The lonely, discordant guitar and grating, whispered vocals on the LP belong to a single person—the individual who’d become Jandek. That same year, in San Francisco, Scott Ryser and Rachel Webber co-founded a synth-punk band called The Units, which cycled through about a dozen additional musicians before calling it a day in 1984.
Four years before that, in the fall of 1980, music journalist and radio personality Irwin Chusid got a copy of Ready For The House, became baffled by its zombie notes and halting non-melodies. The LP’s sleeve listed just the track names and an address for Corwood Industries, which did more to incite Chusid’s puzzlement. He sent a letter to the P.O. Box, and two weeks later received a call from the creator of Ready For The House. Chusid could only elicit a few answers to his long list of questions, but his caller did mention one crucial bit of information that properly measured his obscurity: in the two years since Ready For The House came out, Corwood Industries sold only two copies. Seeing that more people participated in making synth-punk songs as part of San Francisco’s Units than seemed to even know about Houston’s Units, the former kept their name and the latter became Jandek.
Jandek has sold more than two copies of an album since then, though I can only say that definitively since I have purchased three CDs from Corwood Industries in the past year. He’s gotten his music into the public, though not in ways that are always fiscally responsible. When Jandek first began releasing music, he would sometimes send boxes of 25 or 50 LPs to people who had mailed letters to the Corwood Industries P.O. Box. He’d usually tell the recipient to give the records away, which might have been the best way to circulate the turgid, broken sounds of Jandek.
In the 22nd issue of WFMU’s program guide, LCD*, Chusid wrote about a “fan” named Max who corresponded with Jandek frequently enough that he first received unsolicited records, then later noticed his name began to appear in Jandek’s new recordings (“So Fly, Max,” from 1981’s Later On). Max drew a line after he heard his sisters’s names in Jandek’s music, and wrote to his pen pal not to send any more records. If Max’s story is true, Jandek is the only musician I can think of who actually could not give his records away.
When I attempt to explain Jandek’s music to friends, I try to compare it to another genre, though those efforts feel hollow. I sometimes think of his music an inversion of the blues considering he can make an acoustic guitar sound like it’s slowly being tortured, but that would also suggest there’s some semblance or structure to Jandek’s material. His work is fractured and abrasive, but lacks the purposeful assault of noise, which aims to confront a listener: I cannot imagine who Jandek in mind when he recorded a lot of this music. When he’s brought in additional (unnamed) musicians for recording sessions, he plays in a way that suggests he doesn’t notice his collaborators are in the room with him. A Jandek song can feel like picking at a stubborn hangnail.
Jandek’s morose mumblings effectively veil whatever words come tumbling out of his mouth, and because he delivers them with a curious carelessness, it’s enough to discourage further investigation. The lyrics you can hear easily air out despair rather bluntly: coupled with his most standoffish material, it’s enough to leave any listener concerned. That might be why critic Douglas Wolk characterized Jandek’s catalog as a multi-volume suicide note in the 2003 documentary, Jandek on Corwood. Since Jandek’s albums offered all there ever was to know about Jandek, you could believe these desperate sounds were his final notes… till Corwood released another Jandek album, which the label has done, more or less, at a clip of at least one album annually.
Jandek did not appear in Jandek on Corwood, which is built on interviews with a coterie of intensely curious listeners who tracked his work for years. But director Chad Freidrichs did include a recording from John Trubee’s 1985 interview with Jandek for Spin: at the time the film came out, Trubee had conducted one of just two interviews with Jandek**. The year after Jandek on Corwood came out, a “Corwood representative” appeared unannounced on a Glasgow stage: his red hair and thin frame matched that of the uncredited figure on the cover of many Corwood albums. And so it appeared Jandek was very much alive.
Jandek has continued performing publicly, often assembling an ensemble featuring whoever lives in the city hosting him. In 2005 he began selling recordings of these live sets, naming them after the host city and the day of the week he appeared—Glasgow Sunday, his live debut, was his first such release. He’s performed infrequently since that first show, but he’s made enough of a habit of playing in public that he can meet Corwood’s yearly album quota with a new live recording.
Jandek’s music can suggest inactivity, but his relentless churn communicates the opposite. You don’t record, manufacture, and release at least one album a year for more than 40 years if you don’t have some sort of drive—it’s more likely compulsion than passion, but it’s enough to keep him going.
In early April, I visited Corwood’s website and spotted a small notice posted on the upper-left side of the web page. It read, “Due to the current health situation, Corwood is discontinuing mail-out service for all catalog items until further notice.” Which I found rather life affirming, especially several weeks later, after I learned that Corwood released a new Jandek album: Boston Friday. I called the label’s phone number to find out how I could hear it. The voicemail greeting was robotic, unsettling given who I’d hoped would pick up. I haven’t heard back.
*Later included in Chusid’s 2000 book, Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music.