Name: Jason WebleyAge: “I’m older than 11.”
Home/Current town: Seattle, WA
Job description: Performer; songwriter
Bio: Member of Evelyn Evelyn with Amanda Palmer; performed ceremonial deaths on Halloween; founder of Camp Tomato, a parody in response to accusations that he was a cult leader, and Monsters of Accordion tour ("I am not really trying to be a ripping, shredding, amazing accordion player. It’s a very expressive tool that I am clumsy on. Occasionally, I am in situations where I am embarrassed about that clumsiness, but normally I find that it sort of suits what I am doing.")
Select links: “You Only Want Me ‘Cause You Want My Sister” with Sxip Shirey (YouTube); “Sandy Fishnets” (YouTube); “Elephant Elephant” (YouTube); “Evelyn Evelyn: Behind the Music” documentary (YouTube); short stories; jasonwebley.com
Describe your current state of mind.
You’re on a break from music. Why?
That’s a big one. The simple answer is that I've been doing [music] for a long time and I thought, while I'm still somewhere not so far from having once been a young man, I should try stepping away from it a bit and seeing what happens.
Not because I don't like what I've been doing these last 13 years, but because I think that if I don't pause now, I probably won't ever do anything else.
What were you like as a kid?
I feel like we're not the best expert on that. You have to ask my classmates.
Do you have an idea of what they would say about you?
When I was in sixth grade, the teacher did this great thing where she had us list everyone and write down qualities about the other people in the class. And somewhere I've got this little list of all the adjectives that they used to describe me.
Do you remember what the list of adjectives were?
Yeah. “Crazy,” “creative,” that kind of thing. They came up with a lot of adjectives. Actually, the main thing I came away with from that thing was a realization of my own narrow-sidedness. My [classmates] had all sorts of wonderful things to say about me, but my teacher made a really pointed remark at some point about how some of the students had been really lazy in the things that they had said about their classmates. They had written “strange” or “weird” for everyone, and I'm pretty sure she was talking directly to me. I was one of her favorite students but I think something I often think about is: I don’t think we should be judged by what other people think about us; [it] isn't something we have a lot of control over. But what we choose to see in other people is something that we have power over, and is what makes our life richer.
What was it like growing up in Seattle?
I grew up in the suburbs, so I was in a little town about a half hour north to Seattle, near Everett. I think it was probably like growing up in a lot of American towns 30 minutes north of a biggish city. I felt a certain poverty in that heritage, but that's where I came from. And it's a very universal experience I think a lot of people have, growing up in the suburbs. We had our little scene, our little counterculture scene. I was in a punk band.
There was horrible public transportation and no one knew how to drive. Always trying to figure out how to get into Seattle to go see punk concerts was a big thing as I got older. Occasionally, we'd somehow succeed to get into town to see something and get back without a car.
Has music always been a part of your life?
In a way, yeah. I mean, it wasn't always the central part of my life. I would say that it's probably not really the central part, even now. I write songs and I perform them, yes, but I still don’t fully think of myself as a musician. I do a lot of different things in relationship to the music and they all are inextricably woven to me, and it’s hard for me separate them.
How did you and Amanda Palmer meet?
I was performing on the street in Australia and this other street performer came up to me and said: “I like your songs. We should hang out.” We went and saw a play together, and at that play there was this dancer that I fell in love, and ran off, with. Then a few years later I got an email saying: “I don’t know if you remember me. We hung out a little bit in Australia.” It was the street performer that I had gone to the play with and she said: “Well, I'm in this band now and you should come play with us sometime.” So I met Amanda when we were both on the street, before the Dresden Dolls.
Our careers are really different but a lot of aspects of our sensibilities are really similar. It's nice to have someone that can relate. I know a lot of musicians, [but] I don't know a lot of them that well.
Our worlds are different: she’s always had managers, but she's, in her weird way, self-managed, even when she has managers. I've never had a booking agent. It’s just me, and in a way that limits some of the stuff that I can do. But in other ways, it opened stuff up and I've always really liked that.
How would you describe her personality, for anyone that hasn’t met her?
First impression: she's a very strong woman. A good friend of mine described her energy as rolling into a room like a tank. I see that at times. She’s an incredibly perceptive, caring person. There have been times when crap is going on in my world, and there were a lot of people around me, but for whatever reason, she was the one that would call me every day during that time and would click in and be the most aware of what was going on.
What inspired Evelyn Evelyn?
This was in the beginning of our friendship, when I first did a run of shows with the Dresden Dolls. I was doing these songwriter collaborations with other singers, and trying to talk her into doing one of those with me. We joked about band names. She said: “I have got this thing about the number 11.” She said that, originally, one of the possible names with the Dresden Dolls was going to be Eleven Eleven and another possible name was going to be Marsha Marsha Marsha. I said: “How about Evelyn Evelyn?”
It started with that and somehow it stuck, and we got to making jokes about it and inventing a story behind it.
What’s the significance behind 11?
There’s a whole cult of people that have crazy things about the number 11 and other numbers. I’m reluctant to put my foot in my mouth too much lest I get associated with that. I've definitely had some weird coincidences in my life. I like to think I'm a fairly rational person, but every once in a while things will kind of line up to a point where something sort of flips. So there’s been a number of overwhelmingly strange things with that number, but mostly I don’t talk about it much.
The idea of starting my break on November 11, 2011 wasn’t accidental.
How did your ceremonial deaths come about?
That's another weird one to talk about, but it's something I did for five years pretty early on. It was me responding to what was rising up naturally at the time. It's hard to talk about it much more than that. I really felt it was important though. My intention back then was to continue doing it for a long time. Maybe I’ve dispelled that. Ever since I've stopped, there was always a little bit of sadness in me that I wasn't still doing that thing.
But you can ritually sacrifice yourself in front of an audience every year so many times before it starts doing weird things to your head. As beautiful as the implications, and the ways that it ties in with the seasons and some sort of primordial truth, to put yourself in that role and to be going through that thing, I just decided I wasn't up to that. Maybe I was up to that but I didn't want to be. I don't want to pretend to be anything other than a normal guy, or at least a normal-ish guy.
The first time was very honest because it was scary. I got an impulse saying: “Kill this guy. Kill your job. Kill the accordion guy.” And I was like: "Why would I do that? I like him. He's great. We just got started." It was so frightening, that idea, but also kind of amusing, kind of delicious. I couldn’t not do it. I listened to that voice.
A similar voice is responsible for this break now. And this break, I’ve said it'd be at least a year. My guess is that it will be a lot longer.
What about the origins of Camp Tomato?
The cult leader thing was a long time ago, around the time of the first deaths. And it would creep back up, occasionally. By the time I actually started Camp Tomato, there weren't really any people saying: “Be aware of this guy; he’s dangerous.”
I thought it was funny to actually say: “Okay, I am starting a cult and it's the Tomato Scouts." It doesn’t sound like a very threatening cult, and I'm not a very good cult leader.
Why would someone think that you’re a cult leader?
I kept doing these concerts that kept getting weirder and weirder - like vats of things would get passed around and poured into people's mouths, and they had these religious undertones. Some people got freaked out.
If I was in the audience, maybe I would have gotten freaked out. To me, it was fun. But it was also like reaching and exploring and creating things that I thought were beautiful, and tapping into familiar imagery and twisting it: I loved having these carrot priests.
What year was that?
That would have been summer of 2000.
How did you and Sxip Shirey meet?
I first heard about Sxip a long time ago before I started performing. When I first started college, my roommate, Ken Hunt, and I were in a punk band together. After the first year of school, he moved to Austin and came back for Christmas the next winter, talking about all the people he knew. One of them was like: "You need to meet this guy, Sxip," and played me some distorted tape of some horrible sounding craziness, and I was like, "Okay." Over the years, a number of people kept [saying:] "Oh, you gotta meet this guy Sxip," and I never did. I don't know what year it was, 2005 maybe. That friend, Ken, he died in Chicago quite tragically. Shortly after that, Sxip was opening for The Dresden Dolls. They were coming to the West Coast and I was in LA at the same time. I played a couple songs at the concert and that's when we met for the first time.
It was great because there weren’t a lot of solo performers, especially at that time, that I had witnessed, that do what Sxip does. Which is kind of related to what I do. You have a single person on stage that can become huge, and can totally dominate and take over a room - even if it's a massive room. And I fell in love with him, instantly, and there was this crazy connection of our friend having just passed away. I wept when I first met Sxip.
What’s your idea of happiness?
We should measure the quality of our lives in some way by how happy we are, but at the same time, who are we to judge whether we're happy and what happy is? Whatever the little arrow in my heart directs me. A plant grows by certain things. It either senses gravity and wants to go up, or it senses light or water, and it wants to go towards it. I think we grow in similar ways. Do I reach towards the happiness? Do I reach towards the comfort? I hope not. I mean, I hope that what the thing that I'm reaching towards is a little bigger than happiness. And I hope that there's some happiness in it.
I don't know what happiness is. I think it's a very pleasant, but ephemeral thing. Even if you have it, it slips through your fingers. Going out of your way to try to get it probably won't make you very happy.
Life is unbearably difficult and incredibly easy. I'm constantly amazed by those simultaneous things, nothing easier than to keep living one step after the other. It's almost impossible and effortless.
If you could have more and less of something, what would it be?
I don't think I'd want to tinker with that machine very much.
What’s you greatest fear?
Life. I think death is the big flag that's hoisted over everything. That kind of always keeps those other questions ripe. Feeling the imminence of the departure of family, loved ones and eventually ourselves. I’m not as attuned to it, and accepting of it as you might be. I think all other fears ultimately still are rooted in that, [an] inevitable conveyor belt that's pulling us at different speeds toward that vanishing point.
What's something you want to do before you die?
Sit in the sun, preferably on the grass, a few more times.
People talk about a bucket list or something. I've never quite thought like that. I'd like to write a book. I'd like to make a better album than the other albums I've made. I have great friendships. I'd like to have a partner again. But I don't need or demand those things right now. If death were to come in ten minutes from now, and if some sort of regret were to be conscious, I don't think it would be around those kinds of things. It would be more like wishing I had been more patient.
How would you like to be remembered?
Parades. Holidays. Name an ocean after me, the usual stuff.
What are you nostalgic for?
It depends. I think you can get nostalgic for just about everything. I've been working with an old friend of mine that I met right before high school, and we used to commune over this specific punk music. It’s funny. You get a lot of nostalgia with the music you listen to when you were young. But that's really hard to imagine ever feeling again about, like, stuff I encounter right now, will I ever feel nostalgic towards it like that? It's possible. It doesn't seem likely.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to everything. This time off grows on you. It's been just a little less than three months. I do feel some shifts happening and it's slow, not quite immediate. I kind of was hoping that I'd finish that stuff, and I'd wake up the next morning kind of transformed somehow, and a better man. I don’t have to spend so much time managing the Jason Webley business, you know? And I find other things to fill up my time. I'm no more disciplined, or maybe even less so, but I do feel a new wakening of optimism.
The world’s pretty romantic. I think that we’re so surrounded by insane beauty, that has slippery fingers, that can work its way into everywhere - even down between the buildings of Manhattan, and that we -either out of laziness or busyness - train ourselves not to see that, or, at least I do.
What do you think is tragic?
I spend a lot more time looking at my cell phone than at the moon. I think everybody does. We spend a lot of time looking through one type of screen or another, whether it's the TV screen or the screen of our windshields. We perceive the world in these boxes that don't really need to be there. They’re all there to help make our lives easier and connect us with each other, but I think they disconnect us from what's going on around us. You watch a flock of birds move and they decide to turn a corner, and they all go together. We’re animals. We used to communicate on other levels that didn't need little devices, and it’s a little sad.
Do you have anything you want to add?
All that plus 11.