Juffage – Semicircle
Juffage is Jeff T Smith, a multi-instrumentalist from Chicago who’s now based in Leeds – he released his debut album Semicircle last year, and is renowned for his instrument-hopping live performances. I sat down for a chat with him before his upcoming UK and European tour.
(Note: This article was originally commissioned for The Basement in York.)
You’re originally from Chicago, so how did you end up in Leeds?
I thought about coming over here to the UK to do my Masters just because I kinda got sick of living in Chicago, and after my internships finished I got kinda bored of working a shit job. Also, the master’s degrees here are only one year, which is awesome, so I thought I could make up for the time where I was lazy and not going to collage by just going for a one year masters. It was a lot of work, but I came and finished that and I’ve been done with it for almost two years now. Also, Leeds gave me a fat scholarship and nobody else did!
Would you say your studies have influenced the music you made after that at all?
Not as Juffage, I would say. Maybe a little bit in like recording, but a lot of people think when I tell them I went for music technology, they think that it was a recording degree, which it’s not, it’s basically computer programming. I did a lot of stuff with ambisonics and spatialisation, and processing recorded audio, and building patches to do that. So coming up with things that you might not get with your regular Protools plugins. So that’s influenced me more for recording, but not necessarily for the live stuff. A lot of people end up calling the stuff that I do electronic, which it’s just not, at all!
I guess people hear the fact you’re using loops and assume it’s electronic.
But that’s the thing, it’s all live sampling. It’s the same with the record, pretty much everything has originated from an acoustic instrument or an amp of some kind. I don’t even DI (Direct Input) anything, all my stuff is recorded with a mic on an amp – but then a lot of times I’ll end up fucking around with it in Max/MSP or something afterwards, so I guess that’s influenced it a little bit. But not in my shows – the shows have just been my own thing of trying to expand what I can do as one guy. And not even with that much technology, I’m almost getting sick of the technology part now – I’m thinking of stripping back all the pedals and stuff that I use. A lot of my new songs, that I do live anyway, are less based on loops and more based on playing a bunch of instruments at the same time – like bass and drums at the same time, or something. Every time I’m trying to come up with something that’s really pushing what I can do as one guy, that I haven’t done already – or that somebody else hasn’t done to death, like looping the same thing for 10 minutes, it’s boring!
A big part of what I studied was my whole dissertation that I was writing, which was about audience and performer interaction, basically, and like conventions that different performers and audience members have and perceive and expect there to be in different kinds of shows and different kinds of genres. I was focusing on DIY and house shows, even stuff that’s on an even smaller scale than The Basement.
Literally something in someone’s living room.
Yeah, and there hasn’t been that much written about that. So I sort of compared that to literature that was around for big scale pop concerts, and that was just really interesting. Obviously that doesn’t influence my recording or music directly, but maybe it does somehow…
Maybe it made you think about the live show?
Yeah, it made me think a lot – and over-intellectualise and analyse mundane situations!
So you seem to suggest that your sound is constantly evolving in one direction or another – is there an easy way for you to describe it?
On the record it’s basically just me, but I have other people helping me out sometimes, playing instruments that I can’t play. My girlfriend plays viola, and I have other people playing strings or horns, but all the drums, bass, guitar, singing and clarinets and stuff like that is all played and recorded by me. I usually tell people that it’s ‘noise-pop’ music, which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense…
It’s quite a commonly used term nowadays.
I’ve been using that for a while actually – I wouldn’t say that I came up with it, but I hadn’t heard it before I started saying it to people. The songs are still sort of like pop songs, they’re just presented in a fucked up way. And live too, they’re presented in a way that might not necessarily be the most ideal way, it’s just the way in which I can do it. What you have if you just listen to it is a pop song, but when you’re watching it, someone who’s never seen that before is like “what’s going on?!” – it’s like a spectacle.
What was the first instrument you learned to play? And which instrument is your favourite to play, either live or when you’re recording?
The first instrument I learned to play was piano. My favourite is probably drums – but I kinda hate recording drums because I’m a perfectionist! So I’ll spend all days recording drums for one song, I’ll spend like 12 hours, and by the end I’m bleeding and I’ve broken about a hundred pounds worth of drumsticks. But live, it’s great to drum – it’s a pain in the ass to have the drums in my setup actually, I have to bring so much extra stuff to do it. To loop them, it’s a lot of extra technology, and then to amplify them after they’re looped is a lot of extra amps. I have to have a lot more amps than most solo guys for my guitar and bass too, because I’m drumming and that’s really loud – you can’t just run it through the PA and see what happens, so I have to bring all the stuff for the drums. In the show I’m only playing drums for maybe five minutes or something – I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have a good time playing drums, and that always gets a good reaction from people. But I wouldn’t play drums like that for a whole show.
You wouldn’t be a drummer?
Actually, I’ve been in a lot of bands before too, and a lot of the bands I’ve been in in the past I’ve played the drums. But I don’t know if I could play the drums like that for like an hour, though If I was in a band that was touring I’d probably just get used to it. So when I really have the chance to play the drums in the show I like to make sure that it’s actually worth it – I guess that’s true for any instrument. I can only do one thing at a time so I need to make sure that what I’m doing is fucking good!
Which instrument would you say is most important when you’re composing a song?
Lately I’ve been playing guitar mainly, but there’s no real reason for that. I came up with a few of my own tunings now, and picked up a few tunings from different people, so I’ve been playing around with that a lot. I’ve got a lot of songs and riffs written for my next record, so once I start recording something’s gonna happen, I’ve got so many ideas. A lot of it is really guitar based, but I write songs on bass a lot too – I actually prefer to write songs on bass because you’re concentrating more on the guts of the song. If you’ve got an idea for a vocal part and you just pick up the bass and start playing, you might only be playing one note but your brain is filling in the rest – you’re not really thinking about doing any little embellishments, you’re just concentrating on the bare bones, and I think that can help you write better songs. I’ve written a lot of songs on piano too, and then a lot of times I’ll write a song on one instrument, then translate it to another instrument, so it varies.
To go a little bit deeper into your creative process – do the songs form themselves in a live setting first, or do you sit and write the songs and then transform them into a live performance? Or is it a bit of both?
It’s a lot of both. Some songs I have live, I’ve never recorded them, and I don’t even know if I ever plan on recording them, but they’ve basically become live staples that I play at almost every show. They just kinda work as loop-based things, and if I recorded them in the way they are played it’d be kinda boring to just listen to. So there are songs like that, and there are songs that I’ve recorded them and then figured out a way to play them live, and then there are a lot of songs that I’ve recorded that I could just never play live, unless I was playing along to a backing track, which I just don’t do, and hopefully people understand that. Sometimes people are like “play ‘Semicircle’!”, and I’m like “if you can get nine of your friends up here to sing in a choir and play three basses and seven drum sets then sure!”
Have you ever thought about doing one-off performances of your more elaborate songs?
For the last tour I was doing in the States back in 2009, I was putting band together, but then it all fell apart – everyone had to go to collage, basically. I don’t know… since it’s all songs that I’ve written and recorded, it just seems kind of dumb to get nine people together and then teach them all these things that I wrote, that I played once during recording and then forgot – so I’d have to learn it again myself before teaching anyone. If I got a bunch of people together to play music I’d hopefully think that the people that were there could come up with something better than I could come up with on my own anyway, so everyone should just write songs together in a collaborative way. I’d like to be in a band where I write songs with other people before I make a ‘Juffage band’ – to do that seems like a waste of time really. I think the end result would probably be pretty cool, but it’d be so much of a hassle!
You mentioned you’d been in bands before, are there any that you’ve contributed to more recently?
Not since I’ve lived in the UK, not really. I’ve played with a few people that I’m friends with, but we’ve never done anything like a finished product. Also a lot of my favourite musicians from Leeds are in really good bands already, so they don’t really have a lot of time. If I was going to be in a band, even if it was my own thing or a band that I was starting, I know for sure that I’d really want to have two shit-hot drummers, and they’re really hard to come by! It’s so much easier when you’re just one guy.
Going back to that, you mentioned that you had to bring a lot of kit with you, but just how much kit do you have to bring out on tour, does it vary from tour to tour, or even from show to show?
Not really, sometimes I do shows where I mix things up, I’ve done a few shows in the past that are a bit more based on the spatialisation aspect of stuff, so I’ve literally got amps or loudspeakers all the way around the whole venue, so it’s less ‘song’ based. I’ve got sets where I play with just guitar and singing and no pedals, and that’s a lot of fun to do because I can play some songs that I can’t play in my normal Juffage show – I almost feel less restricted when I only have a guitar. And then I’ve got my set which I’ll be touring in my next tour – I guess it’s evolved slightly over time, but it’s been pretty much the same since 2008 to be honest, I’ve just really honed it and came up with a lot of ways of making stuff sound better and clearer, especially with my looped drums, I won’t get into all the boring technical details but it just sounds so much better than it ever did in the past, it really sounds like a drummer is playing when I loop it, it’s really only limited by the PA in the venue that I’m playing at. But it’s always just been bass, guitar, singing, keys, drums and live looping. But just sort of refining the shit out of it over the past four years!
You’re playing in York on the next tour, do you have any particular memories of playing there or the city in general?
York it’s pretty cool, it’s got a weird vibe to it, maybe that’s just me being a foreigner but it seems really quite quaint, it’s a pretty old city, older than Leeds. No real noteworthy stories… the only thing I always remember about the basement its got a really nice PA, it always sounds really good in there, especially for the size. And the way it looks in there is kinda like this weird… it kinda looks like a David Lynch film or something, like you’re in the red room of Twin Peaks. And the ceiling is really low, so I always have to switch guitar and bass when I play, so I’m always hitting my bass on the ceiling.
That’s the weird thing about touring – I try to play a show every day, so you go to somewhere like Florence, or Rome, or Berlin, and then that’s the only thing you’ll end up remembering about being in Berlin, you hit your bass on the ceiling. You won’t even have had chance to see the Berlin Wall – you drive into the venue, play, sleep, then drive somewhere really far away the next day. Last time I was in York though it was really crazy though, it was really fucking busy, I don’t know why, I couldn’t even drive down the street, I think it was like bank holiday weekend or something. Usually York is quite quiet, but this day, I think it was a Friday night, and everyone was just like, going apeshit. Everyone was drunk and puking when I was loading my gear into the venue at 6pm, and then it was still the same amount of people when I was unloading at one in the morning. There’s a cool bar called The House Of Trembling Madness in York, so I’ll probably try and sneak over there after the show.
After this tour you’ve got coming up, what’s next on the horizon for you?
I’ve got this one last show in January, at Left Bank in Leeds, and that’s going to be a bit different. Left Bank is a huge church – I’ve seen some bands play in there, and when you’ve got a full band playing it doesn’t really sound that good, so if I did my normal set in there it wouldn’t really sound that great. So I’m gonna utilise the space in there and I’m gonna put amps around the perimeter of the venue, and do that sort of ambisonic thing I talked about earlier – probably at least 12 different amps all in a circle around, and people sitting in the middle of this. You can probably still get at least 300 people in there, it’s really big. I’m gonna do this in January, I’ll have been back from tour for about a month at that point, so I’m gonna work on this one show for a month, basically. After that, I’m going to record, and anyone who emails me and asks me to play a show, I’m going to tell them no, I just need to record. I almost feel like I’m pushing it with this tour – I’ve got a lot of new ideas but I haven’t really recorded any of them since my last record, and that came out a year ago. Playing the shows can get quite tiring when you’re playing the same stuff – I want to have new material, and more than that I want to have new records. Maybe I’ll come up with live stuff after that – I’m not really in a hurry to play live for a long time!
I’ve toured a lot, last year when my album came out I did over 30 shows, and then I did like 90 shows in the Fall. This time I’m not doing quite as many, I’m doing like 50 shows, and it’s like every day. I’m just ready to record, I’ve got some new fun toys to play with, and I’ve got this studio that I record at and I really want to get in there! I really like recording actually – to be honest with you, this whole Juffage thing, it started as a recording project. I’ve been recording for about 10 years now y’know, and I’ve just taught myself and I always feel like I’m getting a little bit better better, but who knows! I’ve just been playing so many shows… it’s not even the shows that take up so much time, it’s the booking. I’ve had a lot of booking agents in the past but they just don’t do anything, I find it easier to do it myself. I end up getting better shows myself than with a booking agent, and without being scheduled for 10 days off or a 27 hour drive! Even when I’m only doing a few shows here and there, I’m still always thinking about the next show. So if I can just get back from the tour, and have no shows coming up, I want to keep it that way for a year and just record. If you’re just one guy doing all the booking, the recording, and the live stuff, you can only really do one thing at a time.
Do you find the recording process takes longer?
It takes forever, yeah! My album took 6 years to make, and it’s got 8 songs on it. I mean, it’s not like I spent 6 years solidly recording, I mean like when I moved here I didn’t record anything for a year. But there are songs on there that are as old as 2006, probably. It takes forever because you have to do everything one at a time, and then you have to mix it. I don’t know if I’ll get so carried away this time, but most of the songs on my last record have probably over 100 instruments on them, and mixing them takes forever. You could sit there and tweak that one song until you’re dead, but at some point you have to let go!
Juffage plays at The Basement in York on the 25th October.