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Jai Agnish

The  Phantom Tollbooth recently sat down with Jai Agnish. Jai has built himself quite the reputation in the indie scene over the years. He has recently put out a full length project entitled Automata. 

PT: How did you get interested in music, also who were some of your influences?

JA: I listened to Casey Kasem's Top 40 growing up. My two brother's and my sister read books and I sat in front of the stereo with my finger on the pause button waiting for my favorite songs to come on. I'd make these mix tapes of my favorite songs. The Ewok song was a classic. I remember getting frustrating by all the commercials. Especially the barrage they cram down your throat when you’re waiting for the number one hit to come on. But, by process of elimination, everyone knew who would win. It was usually Michael Jackson in those days, if I'm remembering correctly.

So that was my introduction to music I suppose. Then there was glam, then there was MTV's Alternative Nation (or Alternative something...I forget the name just now) and Dinosaur Jr., and Jane's Addiction and they played way too much Helmet. 

My friend JS Rockit introduced me to Pavement and Sebadoh. I remember one day when he brought a couple of metal garbage can lids over and was banging on them with drum sticks and I was banging on my guitar along with him -- that was the same day he let me borrow Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted and Sebadoh's Bubble and Scrape. That was a good day!

From there I discovered Eric's Trip and Fugazi and whatever other indie rock was hip at the time. It took me a while to discover other things -- to break out of the indie rock thing. Now-a-days, I'm open to anything. I scour libraries for good music and burn it all to my mega hard-drive. The librarians bust my chops because they know what I'm doing because plenty of other people are doing it. People are finally hip to the fact that libraries have an amazing selection of music.

I don't have an ipod yet but I have a gazillion songs. I just play them all on random. So it could be Duke Ellington and then the next song is DJ Shadow or some Smithsonian Folkway song, Pete Seeger or whatever.

I got into noise, and then hip hop for a while. Prince Paul, Dan the Automator, Anti-Pop Consortium etc. You know: indie rap. I love cut & click. Then there's Tortoise and those Drag City/Thrill Jockey folks. Danielson and Soul-Junk were huge influences on me. 

I'm big into jazz right now. Monk & Coltrane are some of my favs. Right now I'm listening to Pete Yorn which is pretty good. It's somewhat guilty pleasurable I suppose. A Steven Malkumus meet J. Mascis thing that's very catchy. The new Sufjan Stevens record is great.

I love a good beat which I found in hip hop and embarrassingly enough Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. Their producers come up with these sick triple beat patterns.

I've generally been avoiding indie rock but I'm ready to delve back into that too. The Arcade Fire Royal City, Half-Handed Cloud, Liz Janes and the Curvy Straights are all really good.

PT: How do you normally write, what inspires you?

JA: I normally write with a pen or a pencil.

I find some chords or notes that flow, find a vocal melody and then either write lyrics on the spot or grab some writings I have laying around. Lately I've been taking some time to craft decent lyrics. It never used to be about lyrics -- only the vocal melody. I used to just record the first thing that came out of my mouth until I realized I was repeating the same words over again. It was time to move on, to accept the fact that I can control the creative process somewhat and use it wisely.

I don't make music with a particular objective in mind. I just try to stay true to the moment. I have no profound point to get across to anyone. I just roll with it. That's something jazz has taught me: make it and let it be what it is -- mistakes and all. 

I go back to this guy I met when I first started playing out at open mic nights in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He told me he liked my set and I told him, "But I made a lot of mistakes!" And he responded that, "Mistakes are where the truth is" or something trippy like that. He was a jazz freak. But he had a great point that I'll never forget.

I never want one of my songs to come off as a duplicate of the last time I performed it. I always want it to be fresh. I want my audience to hear something that will never be heard again. So I like to change my vocal inflections from show to show or add a note here or there. That's something I picked up, in particular, from Will Oldham. I've seen him play live a million times and I've collected a lot of bootlegs of his performances and not a single performance sounds the same. The same is almost true with Beck. Oldham would always change up his band line-up and just push the envelope. It's an ambitious goal and he's one of the few who can pull it off.

That's the personal challenge I decided to put on myself: To always play in the moment and not just play the part or go through the motions. It's not easy.

PT: How did you get hooked up with Men of Israel Records?

JA: I met Adam (the owner of Men of Israel Records) in the middle of Illinois at Cornerstone festival about five years ago and we slowly built a friendship and one day he proposed the idea to do a split EP. He was going to release a full-length of mine but that never panned out. He's always been an encouraging supporter of me and my music which I'm very grateful for.

PT: Any plans for any future releases?

JA: I'm recording now. I have four songs -- or the base tracks (guitar and vox) of four songs -- complete. I hope to have 12 songs done by the end of the summer and then I'll start shopping it around. 

There probably won't be any beats or toy sounds this time around. I'm trying to prove to myself that I can come up with some decent songs without drum machines. My friend Julie Bryant, who sings back-up vox, is my secret weapon. There will be other organic-based things like piano, violin, real drums, etc. I still goof around with programming but it's more for kicks. JS Rockit tells me he's cookin' some beats up for me so the hip-hop beat fusion thing has not disappeared yet. I still program beats and melodies of my own too.

PT: What do you think of the current state of music both mainstream and underground?

JA: In general, I think there are plenty of exciting new areas being explored and lots of good bands around. 

PT. What do you hope to accomplish with your music?

JA: I don't have a particular goal right now other than to just write some good songs and try to pull off something special in the studio. I'm recording a new batch of songs and its just about time to bring in some friends and have them track parts. 

It's fun playing them the core of a song, getting their feedback and ideas for how to overlay different instruments. What's been exciting for me lately -- is thinking in terms of overall production, where could backing vocals go, bass, keys, drums, etc. It's a completely different process since I put aside the drum machines. It's been a fun exploration and there is a lot of freedom in it.

PT: Any plans to tour? 

JA: I don't know when I will tour again, but I would like to. It's been a while since I performed so I figure I'll play out here and there in Jersey. I just set up a short acoustic set in Montclair at a cozy bookstore/coffee shop called Cafe Eclectic where I could end up playing a couple times a month. 

After we finish recording these new songs and we all get comfortable performing them as a band, I'll set up some gigs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other nearby cities. 

PT:  What are you currently reading?

JA: I'm reading Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, which is incredible, but I have a habit of starting books and taking forever to finish them. I'm also reading The Flowers of Saint Francis again.

PT:  What's the most interesting thing that has happened to you during a live show?

JA: One time my mic went dead halfway through a song. I kept singing and nothing kept coming out while the sound-man raced around switching out the chord. That was probably more aggravating then interesting.

I've never performed while trapeze artists flew overhead or death defying motorcycle high wire riders roared along nearby. Maybe one day. (Laughter)

PT: Describe what you would consider to be a good live show.

JA: I saw Half-Handed-Cloud in Brooklyn a few months ago in an artist space where you had to climb down a twisty flight of stairs. That was a great show. 

My favorite performances are the intimate ones like that in a small club, or a basement in someone's house or somebody's living room. 

 PT: Jai thank you so much for your time, I truly do appreciate it.

JA: Not a problem you take care.


Interview by Aaron C. Anderson

In addition to writing for Phantom Tollbooth, Aaron also independently writes poems, devotionals and more about the human condition. To read more of his writings or order some of his books go to:


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