Delays and Reverbs Stacked Up on Everything: An Interview with Jackson Vincent

I had the good fortune of seeing Jackson Vincent perform when we were both on the bill with our good friend Scoopski at the Rusty Nail in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a few weeks back. Haunting and moody, his EPs Foxtrot and Normal Tension have a dreamy, cinematic quality in terms of both sonic atmosphere and lyrical arc that he adapts to the stage with a single electric guitar and a handful of effects. Both live and on the record, as it were, listening to Jackson Vincent is like keeping an ear open for ghosts in the early, misty predawn hours of a long night in a long-abandoned ancestral home.

First, great show at the Nail! I know you also had a show the next night at City Winery in Philadelphia. How did that show go?

Thank you! You did great too! City Winery was a great time. It’s always fun playing here in Philly. It was a much different show from the Nail. Two hours of acoustic jams, so I covered the majority of my discography and threw in some fun covers. Lots of people came up to meet me after the set, which is always a nice time!

Your live set is pretty spare, at least in terms of instrumentation—just you and a guitar and a couple of effects. What gear are you using? What led you to those particular effects, and how do they contribute to the sound you’re going for?

My main guitar is a 1966 Epiphone Century. I love that thing so much. It’s such a unique sounding guitar and it feels just as special. It really tells you how to play it, like that specific guitar demands that you hold and strum it a certain way. It’s become my best friend over the years. I’m playing through a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp now which is a classic. I was using a Vox AC15 for the past few years but it was just so heavy and the tubes got really hot sounding really fast during a set so I traded it for the Deluxe Reverb. You just can’t go wrong with a Fender amp. At the moment I’m just using three guitar effects on my live board; a Deadbeat Sound Reverberation Station, a TC Electronic Nether Octaver, and an EHX Crayon. That’s really all I need at the moment. At the time I got them, at least, they were all super accessible and cheap enough that I didn’t mind throwing them around on stage. They’ve really taken a beating lately! Most of my reverb comes from the amp, so the Reverberation Station is usually kept pretty low just to add a little extra layering in the mix. I usually only have it on for my old stuff, like Foxtrot. The Crayon just adds a little dirt here and there, this one is also kept pretty minimal. I use the Nether to add a lower octave under my regular guitar tone. I pretty much only use that for Happiest right now.

My vocal effects are the real thing that people go crazy for at my shows. All those harmonies, vocoders, autotune, and formant shifting are happening in real time through a Roland VT-4. I usually keep the unit on a stand to my right on stage and control it throughout the set. That thing gets a ton of usage. It’s super versatile and once I got around the learning curve for it it became really fun to play with live.

Listening to your two EPs, I’m struck by the evocative soundscapes you create. Often, your voice takes on a ghostly quality. It’s a little like being in a dream—walking through an old, empty house and disembodied voice from the next room over. Incredibly haunting! How did you achieve that sound—not just on your voice, but on the recordings as a whole? What’s your recording setup like?

For starters, there’s lots of delays and reverbs stacked up on everything. If it’s not drowning in a pool of reverb, I don’t want it. I try to keep my recording setup as simple as possible. I typically record using the exact setup I bring out on stage so that my records and performances sound similar. For both of my EPs I mostly bypassed a traditional recording studio; Foxtrot was recorded alone in the living room of my parents’ house and the final recordings that made it onto Normal Tension were all made in my producer’s home studio. It gave both recording experiences a more comfortable and cozy feeling that I think definitely transferred into the masters.

You mentioned during your set at the Nail that the first EP came together much more quickly than the second. Can you talk more about that?

Absolutely! Foxtrot was written in the span of just a few days, really. Recording it took a few weeks on and off but it was all written pretty quickly. That record was made in the middle of a really tough time in my life. Everything seemed to be going wrong, I was losing passion for almost everything I once loved, the relationship that I had worked tirelessly for years to maintain was falling apart in front of me. It was a steady flow of getting kicked while I was down and I had a lot to say about that. Normal Tension is more like the aftermath of how my life was for Foxtrot. It’s a lot like me looking back at that period after living through it. At the time I was writing this new record I wasn’t entirely sure just how I felt about things still. Normal Tension was a therapeutic experience for me. I was finding myself more as I was writing these tracks, so naturally it was a lot harder to get those thoughts out. From start to finish it took me just under a year to make, which is a big switch from the few weeks the first record took.

Each EP also has a narrative arc, with Normal Tension building on the story you started telling in Foxtrot. How does storytelling fit into your songwriting? Or, to put it another way, what do you see as the relationship between story and song?

Both EPs were always concept records to me. I wrote them with the intention of forming this story through sound. There’s a single narrator that is sharing their world in these songs and crosses over from Foxtrot to Normal Tension. There’s that ambiguity though, too. There’s rarely a time where I’ll provide a name or any other type of conforming detail. These songs are part of a whole, but each their own mysterious little story that the listeners have the ability to find themselves in. There’s a theme and a storyline in my mind while I write, but I’m not necessarily going to say what that is. That’s for the listener to decide. There’s really no wrong answer, just different connections to be made.

Is there a confessional aspect to your storytelling?

For sure. I always used the narrator of the songs as a loose reflection of myself. These songs say the things that I can’t say in person. Hidden in the lyrics are truths I’ve denied, apologies I could never give, and certainly some confessions. Songwriting is a real outlet for me. If there’s something on my mind that I need to let out, it’ll find its way into lyrics.

You produced Foxtrot on your own and worked with a producer, Mekhi Jackson, for Normal Tension. What was the difference between the two experiences? What did working with a producer bring to the process?

The processes behind the two records were wildly different in the most beautiful way. Foxtrot, both in themes and sound, is very dark and almost miserable. The recording process was very representative of the record as a whole. I made Foxtrot alone in a dark room in the middle of the night with nobody listening or watching me. Normal Tension, still not the happiest of records, certainly shows a vague sense of optimism hidden underneath its misery. There’s a little bit of positivity to be found there. It was wonderful to not be alone while making it. Mekhi is a master at his craft and brought a lot to the record that I may have never even thought of. I arrived at his studio with six skeletons of songs and he helped mold them into the best work of my career so far. We almost always were thinking on the same wavelength so the sessions really just felt like two guys hanging out and having fun doing what they do best. I’d record a guitar track and all of a sudden he’s adding the most beautiful orchestral arrangements I’ve ever heard.

How do you see your music evolving from one project to the next?

I don’t really think about it until it happens. Like from Foxtrot to Normal Tension I didn’t really think about changing the sound until I looked back at the demos for NT and realized how different it had become. That’s good though. It’s nice to switch things up but I feel like if I sat down and told myself to find a new sound I would just fall flat or hate the result. I’m sure my sound will continue to evolve with each new project I create. I’m just having fun doing what I do and playing with new sounds as much as I can.

I know that you’ve studied photography. Is there any overlap? Does photography inform your approach to music? Or, from the other side of the equation, does music inform your approach to photography? Do you ever carry concepts, ideas, or techniques from one medium to the other?

My professors often point out the similarities in my approaches to the two art forms. My music has become known for being dark and almost depressing at times. My photographs, like my music, are purposely dark and underexposed. Professors tend to show a distaste for it, but there’s certainly an audience for it. I know the rules for photography and making “correct” exposures, I just choose not to follow them. If I followed the rules that everyone else follows then my photos would look just like everyone else’s. I suppose the same can be said about my music.

What’s next?

Something big! I can’t be sure what that is yet, but I can feel it coming. I’ve had a constant thought of Foxtrot and Normal Tension being the first two installments in a trilogy of EPs telling this story, so it’s pretty safe to say a third EP will be in the works in the near future. And as many gigs as I can possibly get!

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

Thanks for having me!

The #Tweetcore Radio Hour, Episode 3

In this episode of The #Tweetcore Radio Hour, I play tunes by The LaLaLettes, Fuzzruckus, Unlucky Mammals, Bottlecap Mountain, The Star Crumbles, The Kintners, Voodoo Planet, Spaghetti Eastern Music, Snap Infraction, and Quizboy! I also chat with Brian Lambert about the healing power of music and the distinction he sees between underground and indie music. Give it a listen!

Fake It Till You Make It: A Conversation with Quizboy

Quizboy is a fascinating character—and I don’t use the word “character” lightly. There’s something mysterious about him. Part noirish superhero and part snarky gadfly, he’s wearing a pair of steam-punk goggles and a skeleton facemask in his Twitter profile picture, and the cover of his 2020 album Rest in Pain depicts a young boy—possibly Quizboy himself—in a red cape, to all appearances ready to take on the world. And his music is pretty awesome, too. Grungy in places and cinematic in others, Quizboy’s tunes have a strong 90s vibe reminiscent of Nirvana.

I’m curious about your identity, if that’s something you’re comfortable talking about. I see on your Bandcamp page that the primary contributor to all of Quizboy’s music is Ben Dayho. Are they one-and-the-same?

If I’m being quite honest, “identity” has always been uncomfortable for me, regardless of whether it’s the alter-ego or the wage slave that would be considered the “real” person. I appreciate that you are taking the time to be mindful about what I am or am not comfortable with though, thank you for that. Ben Dayho is indeed one and the same and is in fact a word play on the Spanish word for “stupid person” or “stupid asshole” in some context. I also go by Bennito Malcooster, a character that was dreamed up for me in my friends’ project “Weed N Stiff” – a comedy band. In their universe, I’m the band’s company secretary.

That said, the bio for Quizboy begins with “Billy was born Hydrocephalic.” Where does Billy fit in?

Hahaha. It’s a bit of an inside joke. There’s a cartoon called “Venture Bros” and in that show there’s a character named “Billy Quizboy,” which is where the music project name comes from. I chose that character because I liked him the most. The “Billy was born Hydrocphalic” bio is actually his backstory in the cartoon, and I just top it off with “oh yeah but the band…” part at the end. Of all the characters in that show that have very elaborate backstories, I was particularly connected to Billy Quizboy’s because he is this odd duck, that has a medical condition, he’s not quite “good” enough to be a higher tier of superhero (the whole thing in the show is a satirical take on “good guys” vs. “villains” and their respective unions and bureaucracies that govern them).  Quizboy, the character, tends to be taken advantage of because of his short comings and social awkwardness. Yet, at the same time he’s called upon to bear huge responsibilities like perform illegal open-heart surgeries (multiple times) because he’s actually smart enough to do them, but was never dealt a hand in life that put him in a position to go to M.I.T. like he dreamed of (a running joke in the show). I just have an affinity for that character, so that’s basically where all that comes from.

Your Bandcamp page is a funhouse of snark and intentional misdirection. I’m thinking specifically about your “Bandcamper” offer: $2000 for access to all the new music you release plus bonus items and access to supporter-exclusive messages, followed quickly by an all-caps warning: !!! DON’T DO IT!!! What’s going on there?

I’m flabbergasted and flattered that you poked around enough to notice that stuff, haha. In short, I used the “subscriber” feature in Bandcamp to house some old demos and stuff I don’t intend on putting out publicly. I put the warning up to tell people not to subscribe, set the price point at something absurd, so that no one takes it seriously. What’s REALLY housed in there, are some recordings of me with an acoustic guitar, strumming and singing songs to my daughter during bath time. Whenever it’s my turn to do bath time with the little one, I sing her songs and she requests certain ones and it’s a nice bonding experience. I guess my overall intention is that one day when I die, I want her to have some recordings to re-visit of us hanging out together. I call the demos “Bath Salts”

I’m also fascinated by your merch. There’s the pig poster, which depicts an anthropomorphic pig standing in front of a nuclear reactor, and there’s the “Nuke a whale for Jesus” mug. Plus the Follow Your Leader line of apparel, which depicts Adolf Hitler blowing his brains out. It calls to mind a blend of Pink Floyd (at least as far as the pig is concerned) and a lot of the punk iconography of the 1980s. How does the imagery on your merchandise reflect your values?

If me suggesting that Nazis blowing their heads off can be categorized as a value, then I’m gonna go with yes, haha. I am steadfastly opposed to bigotry of all kinds. I don’t like to get lost in the weeds of arguing semantics about each type of bigotry, that to me is noise. Everything to me comes down to being humanist. I have been subject to racism, abuse, and some of the few people that are the most important to me in my life are homosexual and/or non-binary. So to me those topics that we like to debate about are not just topics, they are very real people, with very real lives. And they matter to me. Am I an idiot that says foolish things or not the right things at times? Yup. I am a sore thumb in just about every way you can be, so conversely, I also never expect everyone to be perfect and always be keen to everybody’s specific sensitivities all the time, I get that too, but I always humble myself enough to listen to perspective and learn. If we can humble ourselves enough to say, “I’m sorry” when we need to, actually mean it, and treat each other as humans, you can’t really go wrong. Only thing I would hope and ask for is that people can grant me patience for my flaws and ignorance and help me grow as a person, just as I would do for anyone else. Don’t know if that answers the question, haha, I doubt the basic imagery could reflect all that, but that’s what it is.

The pig art was painted by my wife. She’s an awesome spray paint artist, most of the art used by my radio station was painted by her. The “nuke a whale for Jesus” phrase is a slight on organized religion and its interference with political ideology. It was a saying my friend came up with in high school and we used to holler it at each other from time to time, so why not put it on a coffee mug, I says to myself.

There’s definitely something political going on, and I particularly appreciate that your Linktree page includes an option to support Anti-Racism. How do you view the relationship between politics and art?

I can’t deny that, even though I don’t think I intentionally try to be overtly political. And when I say political, I mean in the sense of talking about “politics” as it’s presented in the news. That stuff is really off-putting to me. I get overwhelmed and burned out really fast on the “hot takes,” statements made in absolution, propaganda, slogans, etc. I think most of that stuff is theater, we reduce complex situations too much in order to sway influence one way or another. However, I do hold true to some principals and ideals, and that’s mostly based on personal experience. So, it’s not so much as I’m trying to be political, as it is that we’ve politicized things that I have been affected by.

To add context to that, my father was (is) an abusive narcissist. When we were young, we were not allowed to know of any other kinds of music other than the “real” music he deemed we (and by we, I mean including my mother) were allowed to listen to. Coming from an impoverished neighborhood and school system, my only other exposure to music, was on the schoolyard. So, up until I was well into adolescence and distanced enough to be more of my own person, I only thought there were two types of music in the world. Stuff like Johnny Cash (before it was “cool”); Merle Haggard, George Jones, Lynn Anderson, on and on. The only other music the world had to offer was that “N-word” music at my school. Gangsta Rap was the hugest coolest thing at the time. I knew about the Beatles, because of my mom, but we had to listen to that when Dad wasn’t around because they were “F-slurs.” Imagine the identify crisis of being a person of color at school and having to secretly like “N-word” music because it was not allowed at home, which based on the demographics of where I lived, was a contradiction to the homes of my peers at the time. So, if I’m political because I harbor resentment towards experiences like that, yeah I guess I’m political.

In terms of music, I’m hearing a heavy Nirvana influence. Do you feel like being from the Pacific Northwest has anything to do with that?

Absolutely. Well, I’m not from the PNW. I’ve lived in the Portland area for 8 years now. However, the sounds of Sub Pop, Grunge, and PNW hardcore were so huge for me at such an important age. So, while not being from here, it’s certainly a place I gravitated to. I’m from a hardcore lovin’ town. Reno, Nevada. In that town, you were either a lounge, slick, “finger gun” type of cover musician or band, that get paid well albeit, in the Casino circuit, or you were a hardcore band. I mean, I hate to speak in absolute, nothing is definitively absolute, but that’s where most of the activity tended to be. So, a lot of my band and gigging experience was in metalcore type of bands, I was never cool enough or accepted enough to be one of the cooler kids in the scene or in some of the more hardcore punk bands that I actually appreciated more musically. A lot of the projects I was involved in were machismo, beefy, metal type of “fuck yeah” projects. Which don’t get me wrong, there were fun experiences in all of it. And I love heavy music so much. I played in a band that got to open for Horse the Band once, I thought that was amazing. I had a good friend that had a band that got to open for Hatebreed and Unearth and The Bled, so I was able to get into a lot of shows. I’ll always look back at that fondly. I got to meet Every Time I Die a couple times when they came through town and that was so cool.

At the same time I gravitated to places like the PNW that were a bit more eccentric? I guess you could say, centered more around creatives. I discovered “Alternative” music in 8th grade. It was revolutionary to me. I was the weird kid that was into weirdo music. There’s such a rich history of punk music and beyond here in Portland when you think about bands like Poison Idea, the Wipers, Red Fang, The Decemberists…and it’s kind of insane. I think MDC, Green Jello, and The Dandy Warhols are based out of here too now. So many insanely talented artists that want nothing to do with the commercial aspirations’ aspect of it. It’s refreshing and kind of off-putting at the same time. I never fit in anywhere. Really is different than where I was from.

I’d describe your lyrics as nonnarrative and impressionistic—again, reminiscent of Nirvana. What’s your approach to writing lyrics?

Yeah, Kurt Cobain is indubitably my primary inspiration for most everything I dabble with. It’s hard to explain just how much impact that had on me at the time I found it. I don’t personally attempt to write lyrics too literal. I don’t think I do that well. In long form, like a blog? I think I’m better at getting my point across. Twitter? I am a sore thumb and weird. My mind is always racing, and I must constantly remind myself, “hey stupid, THEY don’t know what’s going on in your head, show some restraint.” In my approach to lyric writing, I try to do it in a way that uses fervid words that get a point across about how I’m feeling, but consciously try not to be too literal. Even though, in my own head sometimes what I’m writing is about something very literal.  

And your approach to writing and recording music?

Fake it till you make it. Haha. I got to a point where I had so many songs written and been in so many projects where my own artistic sensibilities weren’t cultivated or really accepted that I figured, “well, I better figure some shit out or this will just die with me.” That’s basically it. I gave up, haha. I literally just learned basics, hit record, and tinkered with things over and over. Eventually, the tinkering got good enough to where I could understand tutorials and apply some fundamentals. Today I feel like I have a good foundation, I feel like the next two records will really be something that I’ve been meaning to do the whole time but just didn’t know how to do before. As far as writing, it usually comes out when I’m just rifting at my rehearsal space. I’ll usually start with a riff on a loop or a couple layers of loops and just kind of go nuts on it, then eventually structure it at some point later. I have a combination of tracks that are live drummers and programmed drums. I’ve worked with Nick Schlesinger who’s a hired gun, really nice guy and drum instructor, and I’ve solicited help from my friend Toby Lugo, who is I think is in what must be one thousand bands now in the Portland area, hahaha. So I’ll plug what I can remember from the top of my head….Othrys, Henry’s Child, Seven Second Circle, Val Bauer…. Toxic Zombie. The guy is insane. But yeah, that’s the closest thing Quizboy has to an actual drummer.

You also run an internet radio station—AMS Radio. How did you get that started, and what’s involved in keeping it going? You do all of the programming yourself, am I right about that?

Yeah man, that to me is my labor of love. I have no friends man, hahaha, I do it all myself.

It started in… I want to say…. 2019 ish? It was one of those exercises in tinkering and rabbit holes I burrowed into. I got into Music Publishing and all the industry BS that goes with that and I started out with a station where I was paying all the PRO licenses myself. I wanted to be legit. I wanted to make sure if I spin artist, I wanted them to get paid performance royalties. Then the vendor I had, had a server crash, and wiped out all my stuff. Not so much as an “I’m sorry” or anything and to have to keep paying the licenses to ASCAP, BMI and SEASAC the frustration boiled over and that’s when I found Live365 in 2021 which is a place that handles all the license stuff for you and does the “advertising” thing. So, all I have to do is curate and as long as the stuff I spin is published correctly, people earn royalties through their PROs. That is an important thing to me, as much as I have no qualms about pirate radio and the other punk rock stuff out there, I do kind of take it as a personal mission to advocate for artists and learn the business side, as gross as it is sometimes, properly.

In line with the station and the blog you maintain alongside it, you do a lot to promote independent musicians. What’s the draw for you?

I do try to behave when it’s the AMS brand. Quizboy is allowed to be crude, clumsy, and stupid because that’s what I am at my core. With AMS I really am trying to build a culture and brand of independent music appreciation.

I have such an affinity for independent artists, some might say it’s unhealthy, I probably should go over this with my therapist. Is there a lot of “trash” out there? Yeah, but there’s a lot of trash out in mainstream music too, the only difference is money backs one and the other gets up goes to work, and still figures out how to squeeze in creativity somehow. That to me comes through when I hear independent music I like, that makes it all the more brilliant. There’s an authenticity that is just there… I’d rather focus on that. I’d rather discover and focus on all the good things that I feel like people are missing out on. Maybe that’s the little bit of value I can add. Other people’s time is important, mine isn’t, so I don’t mind sifting through the trash to find the things that are unjustifiably underappreciated. If I can show somebody, anybody, something and make them go, “oh my god, I love this” and carry that forward for … forever, right? You hang on to your favorite songs forever. That’s kind of my bizarre and inexplicable motivation for all that. I don’t even entirely understand my own motives. I just love music.

Like the Star Crumbles! I love it. Even though you duped me into pushing cold lies and propaganda. I don’t care though. I’ll keep doubling down. I will still tell everyone I encounter that you opened for Dead Milkmen. Did you happen to listen to Native Tongue in the piece I wrote though? You really should, I think you’d dig it.

I will definitely do that! Anything else going on right now? Anything on the horizon?

I have an EP that is right there, I can almost taste it. I just need a quiet day to myself to put down vocals. I’m really excited for that one, like I was saying before I was able to apply a lot of fundamentals I didn’t have before to it. There’s a cover of The Decemberists on it, a song I wrote on piano, and a song that is pretty personal to me about some pretty heavy stuff, but we’ll see how literal that translates.

And I have a full-length album that I’m putting guitar work on right now. Talk about disappointment, yay! That one will be nice and heavy and angry. Almost, not quite, but almost a complete abandonment from the EP coming out next.

Other than those two things I’m focused on, I’d oddly enough like to maybe put a band together to rehearse this stuff. Or even if it’s just a backing track, I’d like to do more live stuff, and largely I mean virtually, like Bandcamp live and stuff.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!