“I was surrounded by people holding signs that said ‘Welcome Aliens!’” Interview with Brother JT
By Roman Jones
Pennsylvania garage rockers The Original Sins were John Terlesky’s ticket to rock history. Front man Terlesky and his band opened for the Kinks, Ramones, Replacements, Buzzcocks, charted on CMJ, got reviewed in Rolling Stone and had videos on MTV. After plundering the USA and Europe for more than 10 years – and breaking a few taboos in the process – the group disbanded in 1999 and Terlesky established his solo career as Brother JT.
The brother is a classic creative type who constructs music and video and art projects seamlessly like his wildly imaginative Internet talk show “Trippin’ Balls.” He is prolific having released more than thirty albums as a solo artist or as a member of the Original Sins or in collaboration with other musicians. Those records have included “Self-Destruct” (1990, the cover depicts a photograph of Terlesky holding a BB gun to his head), “Move” (1992, produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck) and his most recent “On High” (2015). The music is a smorgasbord of psychedelia that sticks in your mind like a leftover drug trip.
I Like Things by JT Brother
Brother JT graciously accepted my offer to discuss it all and shot back responses via email from his home in Easton, Pennsylvania. An edited transcript follows.
Tell me about your childhood.
JT: I was born in 1962 so I grew up in the 1970’s, but the Beatles played a role in my early development. My older brothers would get the albums and play them, particularly the White Album, and that record’s diversity and darkness became my template for the way music should be–even at age 6. I was pretty happy early on but became alienated and a bit of a loner by middle school, so I was ready when punk hit.
How has being a person of Ukrainian descent affected your music?
My father was of Ukrainian descent and my mother was of Irish descent, so I’m a product of both. On the Ukrainian side I mostly think of church because the masses were sung in that language in a kind of eerie, soulful, droning way. Along with all the incense and pictures of the Crucifixion, it was a spooky experience for a young kid and instilled a gravity that’s stayed with me. On the other hand my mother was always cheerful and would sing songs from her youth while making dinner–“Swinging On A Star” and “Button Up Your Overcoat” and the like. Those two poles might account for there usually being a little darkness in my lighter songs and a little light in the darker ones.
Standoff At The Funhouse by Brother JT
What has drawn you to playing your style of music?
Getting a hold of some Velvet Underground records was big. The primitivity of the playing made me fell like I could do that. There’s something immediate and magical about simple rock music that goes directly to the excitement center of your brain. And when you realize you can affect other people’s moods with something that is also cathartic for you, that feeling is kind of addicting.
Brother JT 4, Houston, 2000.
What was the definitive moment for you as a member of the Original Sins?
We were most in our element in a bar where you set up on the floor and the audience is right in your face, and there’s immediate give and take with the crowd. Those were amazing moments. In the place we played most, the Funhouse in Bethlehem, Pa, which was and is smoke-friendly, I’d sit at the end of the night and look back at the pool table where there’d be big clouds of smoke hanging like ghosts. I would think, “I’ll bet I’ll die here some night”, and that would be OK with me. I don’t feel that way anymore, but that was the Sins–give it up until you physically can’t anymore.
Did you guys consider yourselves part of any scene?
Early on we were lumped in with the 60’s garage revival bands of the time, particularly the Lyres and Fleshtones because we had an organist in the group. But I think we wanted to do all kinds of songs and not be limited by a more purist approach, which became evident on our albums. We could have gone full-on ’60’s, it would have been easier and we might have been more successful with that kind of built-in audience, but it didn’t ring true for me personally.
Describe the essence of Brother JT.
When you take LSD there are spiritual channels you can access, and for me these are directly linked to music. Like the idea of bringing back something from this other world in musical form. Originally it was about trying to distill this feeling you got as purely as possible, so we would sit and jam on simple riffs until we felt loose enough to let something transcendent happen. Let ‘someone else’ inside take over, for me at least. The early days we rarely practiced because I lived two hours from the guys I was playing with in Philadelphia, so it would be like, “here’s a song, goes like this, it doesn’t change, let’s play it until it’s over,” chanting about ‘I saw the eye and it was me that I was looking at’ and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Now Brother JT is essentially just what the Sins would have been but without an organ because I can’t resist the lure of that old, foolproof excitement, letting the song structure do the work rather than catching lightning in a bottle. I think we still transcend sometimes, but it’s in a less experimental context.
Tell me about your other projects besides music.
I dabble with art and video and I have hosted an Internet talk show called “Trippin Balls”. Also, related to LSD, I self published three books written while under the influence wherein I’m basically transcribing these monologues and drawings that come into my mind that I don’t recognize as my voice at all. Automatic writing, I guess. I’m not sure what use they are to anyone else, but the experience has helped me sort of believe in supernatural things. It’s a gift to retain some wonder in your life, I think.
What has been one of your personal highlights as Brother JT?
A few years ago we opened for Sean Lennon’s band, GOASTT (The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger). It was really gratifying, because his fans were not super young and naturally into the Beatles and I think they related to the Beatles influence in my songwriting and performance; it was almost the perfect audience. I would love to play with them again. It’s funny, I had met Sean Lennon back in 1996 when we opened for Cibo Matto. I also interviewed Julian Lennon for a newspaper back then, so I’ve had some contact with both of the sons of a primary icon for me.
What lessons have you learned as a musician?
You should set a limit with alcohol and stick to it. I haven’t quite learned that one yet! Play out as much as you can because that’s where you meet the people that can help you. Stick around long enough and everything comes back in style again, and then goes out of style again.
Is song writing something you can turn off, or is it always running in the back of your mind?
I go through binges where it’s all I think about. It’s like having antennae up to pick up anything that might be useful and then process it. I have written about 40 or so songs in the last year. I’m kind of anxious to shut it down, but we’re trying to put together an album for Thrill Jockey in 2018 and I keep thinking I can knock out one more that would be the cherry on the top. You have to shut it down eventually because it’s maddening trying to relate every aspect of your life to songwriting.
Where is the most interesting place a Brother JT song has been played?
I don’t know, but I had a dream where I was surrounded by people holding signs that said “Welcome Aliens!” and then they brought out a German Shepherd in a little red wagon and I started singing to the dog, kind of like ‘singing in tongues’? Wish I could remember the words, but that was pretty interesting. The Sins once played a biker convention in upstate NY, following a ‘leather and lace’ pageant where most of the girls flashed their breasts. That audience didn’t like us very much, not surprisingly.
How did you like performing in London?
I very much enjoyed it. It was just little pubs, but I felt like there was a pretty immediate connection, like what we were doing was slightly unusual for the audience. I hope to get back there someday.
What brings you joy?
Intimate relations while altered. Kettle chips. Coming up with a song you know is going to kill, then playing it and it works. And when my cat lays belly up on the floor, legs spread, and stares at me with his face upside down. What a sad answer! But I am actually pretty contented and thankful.