“First, I was actually just thinking it would be great if I didn’t actually have to be involved in the video,” confessed Jaffe with a laugh. “That’s honestly sort of how I came to think about it. And part of that was that it’s easier to send people a video when you’re not in it. It feels a little bit less like shameless self-promo, and that continues to be one of the inadvertent pluses of the video. But the real plus is that I was able to connect with [acclaimed animator] Bill Plympton and after a few months of communication, we were able to start working on a video. It’s really been a blessing for me to have as part of my arsenal of things to send out to people. When people I haven’t seen in a while come up to me about music, they say, ‘That’s a great video.’ And once again, because I’m not really in it, except as a caricature, I feel totally comfortable and genuine in saying, ‘My God, yes it is a really great video.’ I’m so honored to be here with Bill today, and so honored to have worked with him.”
We were also honored to be witnessing this special evening at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust, especially since we got to premiere the badass Plympton-animated video on P&W back in January. The program was a well-varied mix of Jaffe’s solo strumming and singing, Plympton’s live drawing (a close-up of his easel projected on the big screen behind him), and storytelling by both of them interspersed throughout, topped off with an open Q&A at the end. Before and after the show, Plympton even sketched on postcards and dedicated them to fans coming through, his fast penmanship freakishly fluid and fearless. “Anyway, we just met two hours ago! It’s very crazy; we’d been talking on the phone for a year and a half or so, working on the music video,” the seasoned artist explained, his tone always super friendly and at ease. “And I must say, I’ve never seen you perform before, and I’m really blown away by your maturity, your poetry – for such a kid. You’re really right up there; I mean, it’s amazing. So I’m really proud to be involved in this music video.”
Between all the down-to-earth chatting and mini art demonstrations by Plympton, Jaffe sprinkled in solo songs on acoustic guitar, his pure vocals shining in the audiophile-friendly space. His setlist included “Meet Me at Midnight” and “Rumors of Your Ghost” from his latest album, The Spirit Catches You, as well as the non-album song he wrote the morning after the 2016 election, entitled “The Dark Ages.” He also played a new unreleased song, “Early Winter,” as well as another standalone, “Save Your Sorrow,” which came to him while watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Jaffe, who cameos in the “Wicked World” video in the form of a cat (since the lyrics mention nine lives), also acted as a live subject for the animator in Brooklyn. “That’s the hugest smile I’ve ever seen. You should do a toothpaste commercial,” Plympton remarked while doodling, to which Jaffe quipped, “I’m making too much money as a singer-songwriter.”
In addition to their humorous dynamic, it was also neat hearing about some of Plympton’s other recent projects, including his Trump Bites series for The New York Times. “It was really connecting,” he said of its impact. “In fact, we got on Sean Hannity, who showed one of them. And he turned it off and said that this is the most disgusting animation he’s ever seen!” the artist announced proudly, triggering lots of laughing and cheering. “Also, I’m working on some Simpsons stuff – I’m doing a big project for Simpsons right now. I’ve done a lot of the couch gag stuff. I love doing Simpsons stuff because it’s shown all over the world, seen by millions and millions of people, and the money’s good too,” he said honestly, the crowd snickering in response. “I just like working with The Simpsons. I know Matt [Groening] great. I knew him when he was sixteen years old. He’s also from Portland, Oregon, and his dad was a great filmmaker, and I went over to see his dad, and there was Matt drawing on the floor. So we’ve been friends ever since then, and it’s really a great relationship.”
The Brooklyn crowd even got a glimpse of some of Plympton’s in-progress work, including a “very rough” pencil-sketched animation called “Slide,” accompanying the frenetic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt & Scruggs (used in Bonnie and Clyde). “It’s about this slide guitar player – I used to play slide guitar – and he goes to this corrupt town and cleans up all of the corruption with his guitar,” Plympton explained. “He’s a very mystical, kind of Clint Eastwood character. So you’re going to see the part where the guy gets lost and actually drowns, and he’s saved by this log that becomes his guitar. He carves his guitar out of the log.” That was as trippy you would expect in the rough cut, and it was amazing to see his work at such an early stage in the process.
National Sawdust also got to watch Plympton draw the president, describing Trump as “very rotund” as he captured his girth, adding tiny hands, tiny arms, and an oversized necktie in a matter of seconds. “Now we have to decide who gets the drawing,” he said as he signed the effortless caricature. “Maybe nobody wants it!” Plympton exclaimed – but who wouldn’t want such a timely collectible? After he gave it away, Jaffe joined him again to discuss how the music video for “Wicked World” came to life. The singer-songwriter noted how he was touring with Jackie Greene when he saw the video Plympton created for Greene’s “Modern Lives,” and that’s how he ended up getting in touch with the animator. “He sent me the song, which I loved immediately,” recalled Plympton. “I do get a lot of offers to do music videos; people send me a lot of music, so I pretty much only do music videos to songs I like… One of the things, when we first talked about it, that he wanted was a graphic novel kind of effect, which I’d never done before, so that was refreshing for me. So you’ll see that there’s actually words in there – words of the song are spelled out. And it’s sort of like Watchmen, which you’re a fan of right?” “Big fan, yeah!” answered the singer. “Reading Watchmen really changed my perspective on how to write my own stuff, even though it’s a very different medium. The first verse is basically just a lifted scene from Watchmen.” Much like his lyrics, Jaffe’s commentary was thought-provoking throughout their discussion.
“This became an amazing collaboration, because as you no doubt know, these lyric videos are sort of a paradigm shift in how people release music videos. They’re often sort of a cheapo, cop-out way to make a video, to the extent that there are programs that people can just literally plug their lyrics into and then you know, boom, you have a music video. So this became, in a way, a subversion of that, in that there are lyrics – it is, at some level, a music video – but sort of the extreme diametric opposite with just incredible handmade art, done with singular artistry. The more I see Bill’s work, the more grateful I am…” Plympton quickly cut in with praise of his own. “Well also, your lyrics are really quite good. They have a deep meaning, and this song really reflects that. It’s great that the words are sort of implanted in your brain when you watch the movie.”
“This is the East Coast premiere,” announced Jaffe before they unveiled the music video, noting that it was first premiered at a gig outside of San Francisco. “I can’t think of a better spot to do it,” he added. “I think is the best sound system it’s going to be on, maybe ever.” After they unveiled the vibrant audiovisual treat, everyone oohing, aahing, and applauding, Plympton grinned and said eagerly, “I’d love to hear ‘Wicked World’ live.” It was strange to think he hadn’t had the opportunity before, and it’s remarkable how digital-age collaborations like theirs can be so fruitful without any face-to-face contact at all. Jaffe performed “Wicked World” beautifully, altering the song to suit his solo performance; filling it out with a nimble and rhythmic acoustic guitar part.
Plympton commented after the song, “I have to say, I think it was a good idea to do it solo after the music video, because it really is different! I don’t know; it’s just a different experience. You changed the song, and you added some cool stuff in there. I think it worked,” he said warmly to Jaffe; a validating compliment from an artist who’s such an unabashed straight shooter; he’d never talk something up if he didn’t truly dig it. Plympton turned to the crowd and then, stirring up giggles in the room, admitted candidly, “We were worried that wouldn’t work.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley