As part of a series called “Remembering Jason Molina,” I’m collecting stories about Jason and his impact on songwriters, musicians, and music writers. These are all individual tributes, on how Jason has affected their music, their perception of music, or just anecdotes on meeting him or seeing him live. Each story is being posted to surround and promote the new album Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina, which not only celebrates Jason’s music, but will also help the Molina family and MusiCares with its proceeds.
Today, Magnolia Electric Co.’s Peter Schreiner shares some personal thoughts on Jason and his music as well as how he met and came to know him. When I read Peter’s words, I cried. I did not have the opportunity to meet Jason, but his music and this very special piece from Peter makes me feel closer to Jason. It encapsulates what I wanted from this tribute project — the impact Jason made on songwriters, music, fans, and the people who knew him.
Peter and his Memorial Electric Co. bandmates also contributed two songs for Farewell Transmission — “Arm In Arm” and “Trouble In Mind (Fade To Blue)”. Peter provided the vocals for “Arm In Arm”, an upbeat eulogy that Peter wrote on his way to Jason’s funeral celebrating his life and epitomizes the solidarity of Magnolia Electric Co. And, as I listen to that particular song and read the written tributes from some of the bandmates and collaborators, I realize and feel an overwhelming sense of love, support, and camaraderie. It makes my heart swell and break at the same time. I feel very honored that Peter and other Magnolia Electric Co. bandmembers have agreed to contribute to this memorial project and tribute album.
I should also mention that Peter provided a cover of “North Star.” And, if you’re not already moved by the end of Peter’s guest post, the cover will definitely bring a tear to your eye.
I got my driver’s license at sixteen and would take my dad’s old pickup an hour into Chicago for shows and then cruise home east on I-94 out of Chicago, way after midnight, listening to Dick Buckley’s Archives of Jazz and Steve Cushing’s Blues Before Sunrise on the radio. The expressway cuts through the wasteland of East Chicago and Gary, which are home to the hulking sooty black monstrous steel mills and refineries that employed my friends’ dads and were just welcoming my generation into their crippling jaws. Flames burnt blue from smokestacks and glowed orange in the thick wet mornings against the pipes, smoke, towers, blinking lights, steam vents, contraptions, and rigging that expanded over endless acres of gray chemical soil, dead meadows, and muck swamp (If you’ve never been through there, check out John Landis’s mesmerizing opening shots from The Blues Brothers). It was a majestically inhuman view from the highway, but on the inside men were night-slinging molten steel to pay the bank and get another six pack. Thirty years previous it might’ve been Freddie King in there, but now he was on the radio fighting highway noise with the windows down. These nights driving home left me with a deep emotional sense of time and place, highway longing, and a Midwest home, as my corner of the country was ever grinding against the mindless gray machine of industrial blue collar life, with a soundtrack of ubiquitous blues and classic rock.
When I heard Songs: Ohia’s album, Didn’t It Rain, with it’s incantations about the “bridge out of Hammond,” the “blue factory flame” in the “Midwest’s heart,” I was blown away. The album gave voice to heavy humid rust belt regret, burnt realization, and hinted suspiciously at a foggy hope. The narrator spoke to me emotionally but geographically too; I grew up near Chicago’s rusty steel industry and Jason, Cleveland’s. And now, living in Carl Sandburg’s “City of The Big Shoulders,” Jason was articulating hard truths and unearthing sentiments for himself and consequently everyone else. Furthermore the recording sounded like the music I had heard driving through Hammond late at night—the sound of people playing in a room…crackling amps, tape-damped drums, reached-for notes left in…all part of the song. Put to magnetic tape like in the old days when the take was paramount, and overdubs unlikely. The voices, words, guitars, drums, and amp buzz all together making a sound in the real moment, against, but deeply in sync with, whatever darkness we humans live in.
I was hooked in a new way, having taken to earlier records too, and listened to Songs: Ohia ad infinitum. I looked forward to Jason’s solo and band performances and got to know him a little through playing with other Secretly Canadian artists. Soon after the Magnolia Electric Co. album came out I started playing with Jason (on drums at first, then bass). It was a pleasure playing with him because I loved the songs and he rarely told musicians what he “wanted” them to play. His basic idea, I think, was if you’re playing the drums, play what you think is an awesome drum part, meanwhile he’s doing his thing, other players are doing theirs, and the song will be awesome—he didn’t need to define the parts. Sometimes that can be difficult when you’re trying to honor a songwriter’s vision but it gives you great freedom, which breeds musical adventure, and Jason wholeheartedly embraced that. I loved playing live with him for the fact that songs could be vastly different night to night. Lyrics, tempo, key, length, structure, solos, tuning, and instrumentation were all up for grabs tour-to-tour. That musical openness was really satisfying on the road, where the particular day’s trails and trials would influence how the songs would manifest on stage. The studio held similar excitement because we’d generally do live takes, so the band had better be on point, contributing to the real-time creation. Vocal delivery changed take to take, each one having it’s particular emotional bent on the lyrical truths which remained constant.
Over my ten years playing with Jason I was privileged and often awed to hear “the new one” he’d written that morning at six a.m. after crawling out at four to collect bones and metal detritus from the train tracks. To hear my man’s voice trying out a fresh tune on it’s first day; to play Jason’s songs with my Magnolia brothers and sisters every night; to see fans appreciate his gift for reckoning with human frailty and probity, are experiences I treasure and will never forget. Jason was a funny, thoughtful, troubled, and complicated man. He rode out a lot of highs, lows, and in betweens but he was always present in life, even if he lived in his own world. He was tuned to the soul of the moment, and at the same time hardwired to the infinite. I am still inspired by Jason’s song writing and guitar playing and often reference his musical gusto when I’m feeling nervous about getting on stage, writing, or singing. Put something real into the song and the song will give it back. I miss him and am ever grateful for our time together.
“North Star” was one of my favorites to play with the band, and with Jason gone, the autobiographical nature of the song is incredible. He knew a lot about the struggle and still couldn’t beat it, but he was trying. The understanding is there in the music, and so may it still help all of us.
— Peter Schreiner
Purchase Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina: Amazon; iTunes
Jason Molina: Website; Secretly Canadian; Graveface Records
Magnolia Electric Co.: Website; Secretly Canadian; Facebook
Thousand Arrows (Music From Pete Schreiner): Facebook; Bandcamp