For nearly 35 years, the name Jandek (né Sterling Smith) has been synonymous with mystery. With nearly 70 titles in Jandek's catalog, each bearing the mark of his self-run label Corwood Industries, Smith's fans and curiosity seekers have hung on every warped note that has emanated from his guitar, every mangled thought he has blurted into the ether, all of it suspended in a dense aural atmosphere.
Evoking human feelings like ecstasy, anxiety, sleep-deprivation and psychosis, Jandek has found the key to a musical fourth dimension, simultaneously reveling in all of these psychological states without revealing a thing about himself. This dichotomy has pushed Jandek beyond the typical realm of music consumption, as the existentially wasted qualities of his songwriting—and the absent persona behind it—snare listeners with their irresistible allure.
In reality, Sterling Smith is to Jandek what Debbie Harry is to Blondie; his likeness is inseparable from the myth. What sets him apart is that Smith permits no insight into his character whatsoever. (He has only ever granted one interview, a cryptic phone conversation with John Trubee for Spin magazine in 1985.)
This behavior lends itself to outrageous speculation. Some have said Jandek is actually a corporate executive. Others claim he’s a bail bondsman. Still others have said that he’s a psych-ward patient or a recovering addict using his support group as a backing band.
“I've always liked entertaining the notion that Jandek may be an alien who arrived on Earth fully formed, and this was his attempt at making pop music,” says Elf Power frontman Andrew Rieger, who, along with Orange Twin cohort Laura Carter, is responsible for bringing Jandek to Athens.
“Other than the occasional similarity to blues or folk music structures, or even a slightly Dylan-esque lyric, his music doesn't seem to be influenced by anything that came before it,” he says.
Over the years, certain albums have become staples of the Corwood catalogue; the records that hooked Rieger were Chair Beside a Window and Blue Corpse. With the warped stagger of songs like "Down in a Mirror," "European Jewel" and "I Passed by the Building," both albums glow with the humid ghosts of blues artists like Blind Willie McTell.
But it’s not all broken blues strumming. Jandek’s records have even wandered through a cappella terrain, and his latest, Maze of the Phantom, is a collection of modern chamber music. Whether he performs on Phantom or conducts a cast of players is unclear; there seem to be no rules when it comes to Jandek.
“My initial reaction to the music was that it was chaotic and random. But much like Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica… repeated listens revealed a sense of organization to the music, which was unique and beautiful in an atonal, somewhat painful way,” Rieger says, adding that his interest was rekindled after watching the 2004 documentary Jandek on Corwood.
“I saw his Atlanta concert in 2007 and was expecting a cacophonous guitar freak-out or a somber, detuned, solo acoustic guitar performance. I was blown away when he played a meandering piano concert with amazing, poetic lyrics spouted over the top… It defied my expectations.”
This Saturday, Rieger and Carter will join a small but growing list of promoters who have presented Jandek in concert. His first appearance came in October 2004 with a set at the Instal Festival in Glasgow, Scotland. The show was unannounced, and “The Man from Corwood,” as he was introduced, was backed by experimental artists like bassist Richard Youngs and drummer Alex Neilson. The appearance sent tremors throughout avant-garde music circles, and more shows soon began popping up throughout Europe and the U.S.
This partial emergence has only deepened the mystery. Sometimes, Jandek plays solo, but he usually has promoters put together a backing band. For the Athens show, Rieger and Carter assembled a formidable lineup: Heather McIntosh (The Instruments, Gnarls Barkley) on cello; Eric Harris (Elf Power, The Olivia Tremor Control) on drums; John Fernandes (The Olivia Tremor Control, Circulatory System) on bass clarinet and violin; and Bradford Cox (Deerhunter, Atlas Sound) on guitar.
“I’m fortunate to have played with everyone in this crew—except Jandek,” McIntosh says from her home in Los Angeles. "As far as improvising with people I don’t know, I love it. It helps if everyone is into listening as much as they’re into playing, but I like the adventure of not knowing what you’re about to jump into.”
At the heart of it all, this instinct is what drives the Jandek experience. How the Athens show will unfold is Jandek’s own private mystery.