Balls Of Fire, Nerves Of Steel: An Interview With Jason D. Williams
Here’s what piano-thumping wild man Jason D. Williams, who was mentored by Memphis Slim and just might be Jerry Lee Lewis’s illegitimate son, has to say about his new album, Killer Instincts: “If you’re having trouble in your relationship or contemplating suicide, I wouldn’t listen to it.” However, we’d recommend the Rolling Stone-approved LP, produced by singer-songwriter Todd Snider and stocked with clever tracks like “You Look Like I Could Use A Drink” and “Mr. Jesus,” to anyone. We talked to the Jerry Lee devotee about his long career, creating the songs for Killer Instincts, and more.
Congratulations on the new album.
Thanks very much. Yeah, it was very fun. Todd Snider can do strange things in the studio. He was able to pull out a lot of writing ideas I’ve had for years.
What was it like working with him?
Well, let’s see. It wasn’t just fun. It was creative, it was different than I had ever experienced when I was with RCA or Sun Records. It was a different mold than Nashville is used to. It was the type of thing where he’d given me fifty songs to listen to, and we were going to go in the studio and kind of pick and choose from those. So I went in the studio, and about 30 minutes into the session we had recorded this old song, “Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”. Then everyone went back in the control room and I sat down and started creating these sort of Jack Kerouac type songs. And the next thing I knew, Todd said, “Whoa, wait a minute. Let’s just go to this.” So for about four days we just went with that idea. And the songs on the record are like that. They portray what happened.
How did you end up working together?
I had known of Todd fifteen years or better. He lived in Memphis close to where I lived, and he said, “You’re on RCA and all this, and I was just intimidated to talk to you.” So when I finally called him, something came out of the air. And my wife said, “You know, we need to call Todd Snider.” She has these very unusual premonitions, and so I said, “Okay, we will”. When I called him, he said, “I’ve been sitting by the phone waiting for fifteen years for this phone call,” and I said, “I’ve been waiting fifteen years to make this call!” So it was just very wonderful to reunite. I’d known him in Memphis, but to reunite at this point was wonderful.
So you got to make up for those fifteen years?
Oh yeah, we did, and mighty quick.
You play over 200 shows a year. That must be exhausting. What kind of material do you do?
To tell you the truth, I take care of myself. I run about five miles a day. Yes, just the travel alone. I understand what you’re saying. The travel alone is exhausting, but interesting enough, when I get on stage–it’s a very high energy show: standing on the piano, doing back flips off of it. So, it’s a very high energy show, and the material I’d use would be a lot of old Dr. Feel Good, he was an old boogie-woogie guy. I would play a lot of seemingly Jerry Lee Lewis. I mean it wouldn’t necessarily be his songs, but that style of energy, with my foot on the piano. And uh, so I would stretch material from…Dr. John to Professor Longhair and Ray Charles and a lot of my own creations at the time, but they all seem to have a genuine theme of high energy boogie-woogie. Except sometimes, I would play two or three classical pieces you know, to kind of get a breather. (laughs)
I guess you have to keep things interesting for yourself.
Right. Exactly. Sometimes I’ll play for a crowd, and maybe they’re not into it exactly like I like. And so I start within, and it doesn’t take long before they’re interested. Sort of please myself first. It’s selfish, but anyway…
What kind of venues do you normally play?
During the fall and summer we play a good bit of the festivals around the country, a few venues in New York, we play them all. Several corporate events throughout the year. It’s a huge variety. Matter of fact, that always was very unusual to me. We may play a small club one night and pack a casino show room the next night. It’s just different parts of the country know about me in different ways. Some don’t know exactly about me and some really do. I did the Detroit Jazz Fest the other day and had just a tremendous turnout, several thousand people. And the next night, somewhere in between Chicago and Atlanta, we played and probably just a few hundred people showed up. It’s very different, but I like it.
What’s your relationship with Jerry Lee Lewis?
Well, let’s see. It’s been rumored over the years that he was my natural father and things like that. I address that on this new album. I can’t state it any better than the way I did when the words came out, because that was one of those songs where the recorder was turned on basically, and I just came out with the song. “I could’ve found out once, but I didn’t/I don’t know if he is or isn’t/I figured it’d be more than I could stand.” Jerry might be a good guy to someday ask that question to. Another interesting relationship is that I admire him as an entertainer. Strictly as an entertainer. I always loved his energy and his antics.
Have you ever met?
Oh yes. We’ve done shows together over the years. A lot of TV shows, whenever we’re in the country. I see him quite often. As a matter of fact, we saw each other in New York the other day. He’s got a new album as well. Jerry’s not playing quite like he used to, but he still enjoys my energy and carrying the torch on I guess, he might say.
Your sound is very rooted in the past. How does that affect your songwriting and the way you progress?
It was a real treat to grow up in this southern town, I grew up in south Arkansas. The name of the town was El Daredo. We had a very unusual group of kids that…we sort of reenacted the Dada movement that was going on in the ’30s over in Germany, where there was a lot of artists, sculpturists, and poets and things like that. Well, somehow, we got that thing going in El Daredo, and so we sort of dressed from the ’30s. And the music I was listening to growing up started out with Big Band music and it just kind of progressed in an unusual way A lot of these guys [I was hanging out with] were incredible songwriters. And they would come up with these very wonderful songs which I’ve never even released, but one of them was put on the record. It was the story about The Big Red Green One, that was the name of our group.
But I carried these songs around with me for thirty years. And now it looks like I may get a chance to record them. They were really funny. Very clever, and they were interesting. We weren’t doing them for shock value, which I think a lot of people do today. They were just really clever wordsmiths, these guys. And myself as well I guess, I don’t know. But we just came up with funny songs. One of them is “White Trash,” which is on the record. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.
You mentioned shock value. Do you mean like Lady Gaga or things like that?
I sort of do, yes. I sort of do mean people that write songs out of trying to make a point trying to stand on a soap box trying to shock somebody. And it seems like we had none of those intentions. Inconsequentially, some of the songs ended up having shock value whether we intended that to happen or not. They may have had messages that we didn’t intend. We were just having fun, kids.
So, you use humorous lyrics a lot with your work. Do you think that’s necessary with the kind of music you play?
That’s a great question. I’ve asked the same question to myself lately. I’m caught now between these really wonderful influential times that were in my childhood of writing these songs and then this high energy piano playing I do that has made my living. But I’ve got two schools of thought there. I’ve got people saying wouldn’t you rather have people enjoying what you really are about instead of the comparisons of me to Jerry Lee Lewis all these years, from the high energy boogie-woogie rockabilly. Well, my answer is I enjoy both of them. I can do both. It’s just fun. So to answer your question, I really can’t answer that. I like them both. I don’t know how I’m gonna interweave them. I don’t know how I’m gonna get in the situation where I can be singing “White Trash” or something like that and then entertain people with “Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” or “Great Balls of Fire” or something like that. Some rockabilly song. But maybe it’ll work out.
Tell us about the song “You Look Like I could Use a Drink.”
Yes, that was a song where my wife and I had gotten into a little of a spat, and so uh, I had been out with this fella named Johnny Walker-not the drink, just the fella-and so we went to Nashville and stayed out pretty late. So she got hot at me, and we came in the studio the next day. And she was still kinda hot at me…she’s the sweetest lady on the face of the earth. But Todd was looking at both of us, and he says to the wife, “Wow, you look like I could use a drink!” So that spawned that song. And we immediately went to the piano and started singing this song. So Todd went out back and wrote some more words, and that’s where that song came from. And it was simple because Todd can look at a situation and see it and instead of turning these things into just memories, all the sudden he turns them into words….which I guess become memories later.
So was it a distinct burst of creativity that led to this first album in six years?
It’s sort of a heavy burden I’ve been carrying around for 30 years with these songs and the interesting childhood I had in my early teen years. I had always wanted to do these things, I remember trying to do it at RCA with Joe Galante. He just said, “What? You can’t do that.” And I thought, “Oh, okay. Well, I can’t do that.” I ended up doing some of the most cheesy crap I’ve ever heard. From time to time, I’ve been wanting to do this, and I could never really get anyone who was psychotic enough to want to do it. So I ran into Todd Snider, and he was able [to do it]. As a producer, he needs to find more people to produce, because he’s really good at it. He says that he won’t ever find anyone as talented as I am, but I’m sure he will. He said he would have to find somebody as talented as I am, and I said, “Todd, you’re the talent!” He was able to bring these things out after six years of not doing anything.
Is that pretty much why it took six years, because you didn’t have Todd as that catalyst?
Bluntly, yes. He was the catalyst that was able to make this happen. Also, there’s a good friend of mine, Johnny Walker, who helped us immensely. Sometimes it just takes a friend who can help you financially [or just be supportive].
You’ve said that some of these songs you’re revisiting are reminiscent of Dada and that whole post-war art movement. Did you mean that in it being a reactionary kind of thing, or a different sense?
The town I grew up in is a town with a lot of money, because they discovered oil several years before that. So when a town goes from 3,000 to 80,000 overnight, you’ve got a lot of real weirdos that move in from all over the country. I was part of a generation of kids that had these nutty parents or great-great-grandparents. We had a lot of time on our hands, people got into the arts. What I mean about the Dada thing is in terms of what we were doing. We were into Eastern religions, we were into a lot of unusual things in the ’70s, and I was just a teenager, but it was really neat. It was just unusual that stuff like that would be going on in a small Southern town, in El Dorado in Arkansas.
So no drawing mustaches on the Mona Lisa or attaching bicycle wheels to stools?
No, but we were making movies of mannequins and store windows, we were splatter painting, doing a lot of stuff. What I’ve always described myself as is that my music is Jackson Pollock meets Vladimir Horowitz meets Joe Namath, I guess meets Jerry Lee Lewis. We were a very unusual group of kids that were doing really artsy things in a small town in the ’70s in Arkansas. I carried that around for years, and now it’s time to release it, I hope.
Was it cathartic to bring back this spirit of defiance of convention that you had as a teenager?
More then than it is now at the time, and this is where I am in life. When you meet someone like Todd Snider, he seems to find the newness in things that I had done in years previous, and I’m sure that other people had done previously to us, and so on. It’s wonderful that somebody finds that it’s enjoyable listening to it. It’s fun and it’s interesting to create, and it’s okay to reach inside your heart, it’s okay to be weird, to be eccentric. It’s real fun, it’s real interesting. You can’t put too much on it, you can’t use too many big words with it. It’s just here and now. With Todd getting into it, it seems like we’ve gotten some really neat reviews. We were just in New York the other day and were on satellite radio. A lot of neat things are happening, including this [interview].
Since you’ve been playing piano for almost your entire life, how do you stay motivated?
I don’t take medication for schizophrenia, but perhaps that may be the answer. I’m only joking. I guess just a real straight answer to that is that I enjoy it. This is the honest truth–because, when I’m onstage, I am doing a Jackson Pollock painting right there, every time. I am hearing, seeing, and playing those things for the first time. That can be really frustrating for a lot of people who have come to see a certain thing, and they’ll get some of it, but I may do a real country version of a rockabilly song, I may do a whole set of jazz. I just change it up. Freestyle is my style.
So it’s pretty much just your modus operandi that if you’re enjoying yourself, hopefully other people will, too?
Yes, to this point, I’ve only had to put it on automatic pilot maybe a dozen times in my career, where I’ve had to just go through the motions. And it was only because of undue circumstances, I can’t remember what they are. 99.9% [of the time], the crowd’s really into it, so I do, and I just come up with anything…I write in my head while I’m playing. I’m taking the drumsticks and playing on the inside of the piano. I have the most wonderful band. The bass player, Mike Harber, has been with me for 26 years; the guitar player for 20 years, Jimmy Davis; Chris Sechler, on drums for 18 years. There’s a whole lot of mental telepathy going on there, sometimes they know where I’m going before I do.
You’re based in Memphis, but recorded the album in Nashville. How did the change in environment affect the process?
We went to a studio in Nashville, Blackbird Studio. I just talked about my band; however, when I did record this record, I did not use the band, because I wanted that change as well. They have studios all over the country now. Todd Snider and I could have done these things in the basement of some building in New York City, I guess, but the change was good to go to Nashville. Todd Snider said, “Let’s scare these people in Nashville.” He might have had an unintentional laugh, I was just trying to get back in the good graces. I guess we created something. Everybody [hearing] that Jason D. Williams–that’s me–and Todd Snider are together, that created some interesting talk.
Anything else that you’d like to say about the album?
If you’re having trouble in your relationship or contemplating suicide, I wouldn’t listen to it. I think that it should have the same warnings that heavy medications have on them, with side effects. I’m only kidding, but you can print that anyway. I do have one thing to say about the album: it is the closest thing you’ll hear to my show. It’s the first time I was able to do anything like that. I think it’s the closest thing you would ever [hear] to anyone’s show. I hear people do records, and it sounds kind of like their show, but my show is so diverse, and now this record is. They match up.