Drown the Pigeonhole

Damien Jurado’s dynamic new LP is his most expectations-busting yet

Nov 7, 2012 at 10:23 am
Damien Jurado (Photo: Sarah Jurado)
Damien Jurado (Photo: Sarah Jurado)

The story of Damien Jurado’s relationship with Punk Rock seems too symmetrical, too fortuitous and too rare to possibly be true. 

Somehow, though, all the pieces match. Now 39 and based out of Seattle, Jurado was once a 14-year-old living in the beach resort town of Ocean Shores, Wash. Around 1986, he began growing infatuated with Punk after seeing the 1984 Social Distortion/Youth Brigade documentary Another State of Mind. 

“I grew up listening to a lot of harder music, but Metal was at that point kind of getting bad and I wanted something that was shorter and more or less spoke to me,” Jurado says.

Being eager to learn about Punk was easy; accomplishing that task was not. The closest record shop to Ocean Shores was 75 miles away in Olympia. 

Fortunately, Jurado had a friend with connections. His friend’s father managed a local hotel and a janitor working there supplied that friend with a mixtape loaded with obscure Punk bands. Jurado contacted the janitor to get some of his own tapes, which familiarized the teen with Fang, Butthole Surfers, Black Flag, Big Boys and Flipper. Jurado and his friend hung out with the janitor on and off for three months until he was fired. Years later, the janitor/mixtape maker — a guy named Kurt Cobain — became an international icon.

At 16, Jurado played in a Punk band and later in Hardcore groups. But when Nevermind came out in 1991, the same person who ushered him into loud, raw music would be his catalyst out. 

“Punk Rock wasn’t really rebellious anymore at that point. Punk Rock had gone mainstream. You could buy Punk Rock in a mall,” he says. “By the time Nevermind came out, Sonic Youth was already on a major label, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise that Nirvana (got signed).” 

Prompted to look for an alternative to Alternative, Jurado was in a thrift store in ’91 when he found a compelling-looking album with minimalist packaging. 

“I first thought it was going to be a Punk Rock record. That’s how it was packaged,” he says. “So I went home and put it on and out came Pete Seeger’s voice. I was just like, ‘Wow.’ I began to make the correlation (that) these songs are still about struggle (and) rebelling, but they’re just sung with a banjo and they’re all less than a minute long.” 

About four years later, Jurado began writing his own music, which skewed closer to Seeger’s sound than anything Punk. Jurado’s debut record, Waters Ave S., was issued in 1997 on Sub Pop, the same Seattle label that gave Nirvana its start. 

In the time since, Jurado has had Rock-centric moments and other detours, but by and large, he’s stuck to his trademark somber frailty. Maraqopa, his 10th and latest full-length, is about a man getting in a car and leaving his unhappy life behind, eventually ending up in an unfamiliar small town.

Musically, Maraqopa is one of Jurado’s more unpredictable LPs. There are Santana-like Blues Rock riffs, watery old-school Rock & Roll effects, creepy choirs and fluctuating production dynamics.

“I like being challenged by records, even on the audible level,” Jurado says, using Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as examples. Jurado is very much into the notion of music being more than entertainment. As a result, he relishes the idea of having to repeatedly adjust the stereo to keep up with an album’s changing volume levels.

Apply the “singer/songwriter” label to Jurado at your own risk — he detests the term. (He isn’t a fan of being labeled “Folk” either.)

“You’re either some shlocky Jack Johnson wannabe coffeehouse guy or you’re a super-sensitive and quirky, wears-his-heart-on-his-sleeve singer/songwriter who just sings about breakups,” he says of the descriptor.  

Jurado says the dynamic Maraqopa is his chance to defy assumptions and correct misnomers.

“I don’t make singer/songwriter records,” he says, “but they shove me in this category.

Though direct and honest during interviews, Jurado shies away from revealing too much about himself in song.

“I don’t feel the need to really sing from a personal point-of-view or experience. One, I’ve always felt like I just don’t have anything to say,” he says. “And … I can be a pretty introverted person. I just hold people at arm’s length at all times. That’s not really intentional, but it’s sort of natural. 

“It’s easier to let people into a made-up story. These fictional songs become my walls I can build around me (so) I don’t have to talk about me. It’s a great thing.”

DAMIEN JURADO plays Taft Theatre’s Ballroom Thursday with Sharon Van Etten. Purchase advanced tickets here.