Joe Jackson decided to strip his music to the bone on his latest studio album, Rain, recorded in his newly adopted hometown of Berlin.
There's Jackson on piano and vocals, Graham Maby on bass and Dave Houghton on drums. That's it. This same rhythm section goes back to Jackson's 1979 debut, Look Sharp, and provides clean, uncluttered backup to songs written by the smart and acerbic British rocker.
Refusing to be pigeonholed as part of the post-punk, new wave movement, Jackson has worked in swing and jump blues (Jumpin' Jive), movie soundtracks (Tucker, Mike's Murder), adult-oriented pop (Night and Day, Body and Soul) and classical (Symphony No. 1).
Was your relocation to Berlin a search for some fresh musical inspiration?
I moved to Berlin about a year and a half ago, and I just like it there. It feels a lot freer than the cities I lived in before, London and New York. . . . Most cities in Western Europe and North America are becoming less free and less fun. The songs on this new album were written over a period of four years and in all sorts of different places. So, no, it doesn't make much of a difference to me where I write, as long I have a piano.
Why did you make the decision to use no guitar on Rain?
It just evolved in the last few years. In other words, it's not an ideological decision — there's no agenda. Over the last few years, I've gotten interested in writing songs that are indestructible. You can play them with just a piano and it still works. What I'm interested in doing is writing songs so solid through and through, where every note in every song is necessary and you never feel like anything's missing.
Uptown Train is one of the most outstanding tracks on Rain, quite reminiscent of some classic, piano-driven jazz albums. Were those a big influence on you?
I really like those records by people like Horace Silver, and Uptown Train is intended to invoke that kind of style. As a kid, the only music I was aware of was mid-'60s pop and rock — the Beatles and Kinks and all that. At the age of 11, I started classical training on the violin, then around the age of 14, I switched to piano and started listening to jazz.
I think if you truly love music, you're going to be interested in all different kinds. People stuck in one genre are fetishists, not true music lovers.
Graham Maby and Dave Houghton are people you've known and played with off and on for many decades. What's the key to how well you work together?
We grew up around Portsmouth (England) and have so many connections, so many bands we played in together. . . . It's a lineup associated with jazz but we don't play jazz. Yet there is a kind of jazzlike spirit and freedom to it. We've got a big repertoire and can easily change songs and arrangements from night to night.
What are your thoughts on the changes going on in the music industry?
I've had people say to me: "Isn't the album dead?" That's like saying the novel is dead. It might be that less people read novels, I don't know. But if you're a writer and you've got a novel in you, that's what you should be doing. Same thing about making an album. I'm not tying myself in knots trying to be hipper. I'm going to do what I'm going to do and maintain quality control.