Jesse Lortz of Case Studies

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On feeling less alone through collaboration and inspiration from authors.

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Michael Wojtas | June 21, 2013

Case Studies, Jesse Lortz

Feature photo by Angel Ceballos

Recording under the moniker Case Studies, Jesse Lortz has crafted two albums of ruminative folk that stand as anomalies in the Sacred Bones catalog. Both 2011’s The World Is Just a Shape to Fill the Night and the recently released This Is Another Life are stately, reflective and difficult to pin down. The standard reference points that come with singer-songwriter territory (Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan) are frequently cited, but such comparisons are superficial at best. Perhaps this is because if both Case Studies albums have a defining trait, it’s their intensely personal nature.

Speaking to Impose about This Is Another Life, Lortz doesn’t shy away from this idea. Opening up about his latest offering, he also provided some choice words about turning a solo record into a highly collaborative affair, the ways in which external baggage can make an album stronger and the strange feeling of relating to Philip K. Dick.

I noticed you’ve been posting a lot of stuff about animation on the Case Studies Facebook. How did you get into that?

When we recorded, we sped up one of the songs and made it more boisterous I guess, and there was this one part that made me think of a dog panting, and I was just thinking, “Huh, let’s make a music video for it. It’s from that “Richard Brautigan” song.

For the few people I know who have heard the record, “From Richard Brautigan” seems to be one of the songs people are responding to really well. Is Brautigan a big influence for you?

I feel really strongly connected to Richard Brautigan. When I was a kid, my dad had – you know how everybody’s dad has a secret stash of magazines or whatever?

(Laughs) Right.

Well he had a stash, but in that he had Trout Fishing In America and Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman. So as I got older, I would look more at the books than the magazines. And, man, it’s so much to get into…Like, part of the reason I felt OK getting divorced was reading Richard Brautigan’s stories about his daughter. Or reading her memoir. When I was recording the first record – I have a tendency to ramble, also…

Rambling’s fine. Rambling’s great.

You’ve got me started on a topic that I’m actually really interested in talking about. I went to record the first record in Montana at my grandfather’s cabin for like a week. And I just got cabin fever after a few days, and I had to get out. So I ended up visiting the barn Brautigan used to write in in Pine Creek, Montana. It was really overwhelming and terrifying. But yeah, I like Richard Brautigan a lot.

Aside from that, are there any other literary influences that sort of bleed into your work?

I started reading Cormac McCarthy, so I think maybe more of that epic aspect came in. I got into Philip K. Dick. I’ve got a whole new batch of songs that are a little different, maybe. But probably not, really (laughs).

I’m trying to imagine a Case Studies song influenced but Philip K. Dick…

Have you read Martian Timeslip?

Yeah.

When I read that, it was like, I could completely identify with a schizophrenic. It was like, “Yeah, that makes perfect sense.” Kind of scary (both laugh). I’ve maybe read three of his novels. There was one about a presidential election…

I’m not sure which one that is. I feel like I could have read it then completely forgot it.

I don’t really retain anything, which is a major problem.

I hear you on that.

(Laughs) Or maybe it stays long enough for you to homogenize it and use it for your own thing.

Maybe it sticks with you in the subconscious and you don’t even know it.

Yeah. Well, I’m super excited because I’m getting ready to go back to school. I’m going to take this program that’s a study of Greek mythology and tragedy, and I’m going to be doing some audio and visual experiments with it. Which is exciting because I’m really into that stuff and I think it’s going to take my focus away from just writing about myself. That can be a little tiresome.

The new album seems like it’s really personal.

That’s the only way I know how to write. Every single song is a time capsule of a place or a person – sometimes of the same people. And it’s kind of rough right now because I’m getting a band together and trying to play shows, promote the record, but always having these songs over my shoulder. Instead of just being able to be like “That’s done, I’m moving on.” Because I have to sing about it and talk about it for a year.

Are you about ready to tour with the new songs?

Yeah, we’re figuring that out right now. The scope of what we want to do, and what’s feasible. There’re a few tours we might be jumping on as openers, and we’re talking about doing a couple of little regional things.

Strictly with the band? Or are you doing solo performances, too?

It all depends, because I’ve been doing solo shows for the last couple of years, since the prior record came out, and it just seems like people just kind of want a band. I feel like it’s a little too heavy if it’s just me, singing – there’s nothing else to focus on. It can be a little uncomfortable, maybe.

Especially given the material.

Yeah, I mean, it’s good in a way, to have that kind of outlet. It’s made a big difference for me. But I think that’s why I didn’t really tour with the last album. I couldn’t imagine going out for a month or two, just being at a bar every night alone, playing these songs. It didn’t help sales, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t. Personally, it was probably a really healthy, smart move.

I saw on your blog you posted up the lyrics for most of the songs on the new record a good six months ago. How long has this material been around? And how has it evolved since you put up the lyrics?

The lyrics haven’t really changed. It’s kind of like, once I write them, I just go write another one. But I wish I rearranged a couple of little spots. There are a couple of little lyrical things that are bothering me. (Laughing) Too late now. But I just put them up because I felt like I needed a little feedback. I have the tendency to just fall back into my own head, and I don’t really play a lot of shows. So I don’t have that instant source of feedback that you get from an audience. But I like lyrics. I’m working on a songbook that’s going to have all the lyrics from the album laid out.

As part of the packaging for the album?

Yeah, well what led me to start making books is that I wanted to have some kind of alternate merchandise, because I feel like t-shirts are kind of played out. If you have the record, then you have the songs, so why not build on that? Because what you’re actually selling is not an image. Not “I like this picture, so you should like this picture, and wear it and wear my band name. And go out into the world and sell records for me.”

And be a Case Studies billboard.

Yeah, I mean I’ll probably end up making t-shirts, but I want it to be about the content rather than a look.

I do think the album art for This Is Another Life is really good, though.

Thanks. I think historically, I’ve been really control-freakish with all the visuals. Like, “I want to do the layout, I want to do the art, I want to art direct it.” And it’s been cool, but it’s lonely.

But it seems like the first Case Studies record had a sort of collaborative feel…

Well, for the first record, I felt like I wasn’t really hanging out with any of my friends. So I was like, well, I’ll do song night at my house, and whoever wants can come sing. And a bunch of people came and sang, but they wanted direction, and I didn’t have the energy. I was just like, “Do whatever you want.” I was just so burnt out from everything, I didn’t follow through with it. It was just like, let’s record the record, and that’ll be done. But with the new one, I have a lot of friends that do artwork, like Arturo [H. Medrano], who did the collage for the cover. And I have a friend that’s maybe doing some textiles based on the songs, like some bandanas or something. But I’m really making an active effort to let people in. A lot of people care about me a lot, and want to help and be a part of what I do. And I want to be a part of what they do. I feel like everybody knows this stuff. Everybody knows that it’s fun to work with people, to collaborate. And that’s what artists do. But for me, all these realizations happened really slowly. And it’s like “Oh, man, why didn’t anybody tell me.” But I wouldn’t have listened, anyway, if anybody had.

So this idea of collaborative art – letting other people in to what you do – is that something that was easier for you with the new album?

Absolutely, because it doesn’t make me feel like I’m alone. Like I’m the only one that feels this way. And I know logically that I’m not. But when you’re sitting alone in a room, writing, you kind of have to feel super alone. But when you’re feeding your son breakfast, or going out in the world, through the day, you’re scratching to feel normal. So having that buffer or filter is really nice, because I don’t get so trapped inside my own head.

I think your first album also had a more ragged feel, while the new one is…not necessarily more polished, but more precise and orchestrated. Was this a conscious choice?

The new album you’re saying seems more polished?

Or I was trying to dance around that word. But let’s at least say more considered.

See, with the first record we would just practice once a week. I would make a big pot of spaghetti and have people over to look at the lyrics and to start playing. Then after a month or two of that, we went to the cabin for three days and did it. And it was done. With this one, I did demos, I have a friend in Seattle that’s been playing piano with me, so we got together every week. Then we went down to Oakland and we started recording it January. We laid down some of the stuff, then Marissa Nadler came down and we did our duet. So it took a lot of time passing to get everything just right. Because, with the last record, they’re really good songs, but in a sense, I wasted that record. As an opportunity to get people interested, and to get it out there. I didn’t tour, and I just kind of half-assed that record. So with this one, I really wanted to do my best, and really try.

And you were working out of an actual studio this time?

It was recorded out of the Creamery, with Greg Ashley.

He worked on the first album, too, right?

(Laughs) Yeah, he brought his reel-to-reel to the cabin…the whole last record was just a fucking mess. The recording, there were a lot of weird personal things going on.

Were you able to keep those kind of external things, that kind of baggage, from interfering with the new record?

I think it’s all in there. I think it should be. Those songs are all about two really specific times. There are the songs that are about the time right before I got divorced – and those are the songs that told me “Get divorced. You can’t be in this situation anymore.” And the rest of them are about what happened after. I’m probably saying too much. But it should be, because that’s what records are about.

Are you happy with the way This Is Another Life turned out compared to the first album?

Definitely. Like I said, there are always a few things you wish you could go back and tighten up or change. Musically, it was kind of the same with both records. Jon, the pianist, and I, we were practicing a lot. But we only had two days to rehearse with the rhythm section, Oscar and Joe. Then we did all the vocals. We didn’t ever really get a lot of time to develop the songs, with a full band. So now I’m pretty psyched, because I have a full band, and we’re getting ready to start playing shows. And we’re going over how it’s going to sound live, and getting past the idea that what we’re playing live is going to sound like the record. But I’m pretty happy about it.

I’m sure I’m not the first person that’s mentioned this, but your music is pretty different than most of what’s coming out on Sacred Bones. How is it working with them?

I love Caleb [Braaten, founder of Sacred Bones], I’ve been friends with him for a really long time. It’s a weird fit, definitely. I’m not really a fan of a lot of bands on the label, a lot of it doesn’t really appeal to me, or what I’m into musically. But I also really admire the fact that Caleb is just like “I like this. And I think other people would like it, too. So I’m going to put it out.” I think it’s really a testament to him and his crew, that they put out things they feel strongly about, instead of “Well, that band is really popular on Pitchfork, let’s put out their record.” And sometimes it doesn’t really hit, sometimes it does. And visually, he’s super supportive of doing crazy shit for your packaging, he’s always pushing you. And Keegan [Cooke], the guy who does all the screen printing, has been a friend of mine for even longer than Caleb. So he’s my connection to Sacred Bones, I met Caleb through Keegan.

Pretty much everything they release at least looks really cool.

Yeah, it sort of has that library sense, but with a psychedelic bent to it.

I think people tend to have a tough time drawing comparisons to your sound – not just in relation to other Sacred Bones artists, but in general. Although I don’t think I’ve ever read a review that didn’t mention Leonard Cohen.

It’s always hard to be constantly compared to someone. But I’m sure the same thing happened to Leonard Cohen – being compared to someone, so there could be a touchstone. “I like that guy, maybe I’ll be into this.” So it used to kind of bother me a little bit, just because it was always “Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen” over and over. But there’s so much other stuff out there, what about the Beatles? What about T. Rex? What about Neil Young? And those just the established greats, you know? Then you’ve got Bill Fay, or you’ve got all this weird underground shit. I can appreciate it, though – I’d rather be compared to somebody I admire than somebody I don’t. But it’s funny, because I’ll read those, and there are a lot of times where I’m also compared to someone I’ve never heard of. And I’ll check it out, and it’s like, “Oh, okay. That’s who that is.”

The Cohen thing seems like a pretty surficial comparison.

Totally. It might be cadence, because I really admire his lyrical cadence, the way he places words. And when I was making the first Case Studies record, I was listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen, so it makes sense that would come through. But it’s the same with him or Dylan – what they were writing about was totally different from what I’m writing about. And for me, my records are less about the music. They’re more about the writing. The music part isn’t really that interesting to me. I like singing it – the words are what are more important to me.

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