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Aaron Lee Tasjan is the nice guy of rock ’n’ roll. As a hired-hand guitarist and in his own right as a solo artist, Tasjan has spent years in the scene, accruing stories of doing mushrooms with Bono and being told by Jimmy Iovine that dudes in make-up don’t sell records. He’s seen the ugliest sides of the industry, and yet, as he leaves his day job as an axman for artists like New York Dolls, or his old band Semi Precious Weapons, he’s retained his unbridled cheer and desire to bring goodness to a notoriously toxic industry. “I just really want to make people happy and I want people to be joyous and to be good to each other,” he explains to VMP.
On his new album, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, the singer-songwriter (and now producer) taps into a glamorous side of his artistry, layering his catchy songwriting in ’70s sheen and ’60s psychedelia on songs like opener “Sunday Women” and “Cartoon Music.” It’s often easy to tell when an artist has made a leap, and this isn’t to imply that Tasjan’s earlier solo forays like Karma For Cheap aren’t excellent, but Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! is a staggering thesis from the Ohio-raised artist.
Now based in Nashville, Tasjan created this new LP behind his label’s back after they (rightfully, by his own admission) balked at his desire to self-produce this new album. After he turned in a few songs that they liked, they allowed him to continue, and alongside Greg Latimer, Tasjan has turned in one of the most exciting albums of the new year. Alongside tales of mistaken Twitter feuds with Peter Frampton and stories about being broke on the road, Tasjan spelled out his life philosophy and approach to songwriting. Though he’s been broken and bruised in his lifetime of music, he’s never let that get in the way of an unendingly optimistic approach to music. “I think if you're patient, pain can turn into beautiful and positive things in your life,” he says. Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! proves as much.
VMP: When did you begin to realize that the songs you were working on would become an album?
This was definitely a process where I was writing over time. A lot of this was written when I was on tour supporting my last album, Karma For Cheap. I would just write a couple of songs here and there when I had a few days off. I would come home from a tour and then book studio time right after that and go in and just record whatever songs I had. We continued that process for about a year, and ended up with 23 songs and chose the 11 for the album out of those.
Do you think the way this album sounds was at all informed by writing while you were on the road?
When I write, I just do it constantly and I'm doing it everywhere. I know some people are really ritualistic about the way that they write, or at least I have friends that tell me they are, but I'm more nonchalant about it. I do my best stuff in the shower. I randomly, accidentally think of something that's really cool when I’m not trying to. So I don’t think it’s a huge influence on me, just because I'm writing pretty consistently.
Once you have a few songs that you know will be on the new record, are you tailoring the rest of your songwriting to work in with that or is it all just pretty free flowing?
Yeah, I think I made more of an effort to do that this time. Traditionally for me, I think I've always just written some songs and then picked what I felt like were the best songs. This record has some themes on it that are a little more personal, too, so I felt compelled to follow through on that at different points throughout the album. I don't know why. I was just finding that to be compelling, really. There were a lot of those stories and stuff that I hadn't really ever told in song form, so it was fun to get into that and try to bring some of those themes out throughout the record.
You wrote this album without the label knowing about it…
When I got signed to New West Records, they came to see John Moreland play ― and who wouldn't? That dude is incredible and I was opening. I was onstage by myself. I had an acoustic guitar and I was leaning into the things that I had seen other people do that worked in that sort of setting. Todd Snider was a huge influence in terms of watching that dude on stage. I was probably employing a healthy amount of that in my show at the time.
They signed me thinking, "OK, this guy's going to be a folk troubadour kind of guy" or whatever. Then, for the first time ever, I had the opportunity to make records with budgets and do what I wanted to creatively. I took that as an opportunity to use what I thought was the full breadth of what I could do. I think they were happy with that, ultimately, but I do think it surprised them and maybe even perplexed them a little bit because they weren't expecting it.
When I approached them and said, "I think I would like to try producing myself and find someone to co-produce with me, but have more of a hand in the production," that was a bit of a head-scratcher for them. I think the response that I heard was like, "We love Aaron and think he has a really wide array of talents, but we're just not sure if we see him as a producer.”
But man, I'm an optimist. For better or worse. I heard that and thought, "Well, that's how they feel and certainly, they're entitled to feel that way." I could even see why they might feel that way. I don't have some amazing track record as a producer, so I get it. But at the same time, I just felt compelled to boldly be myself even if that meant turning in a record that, ultimately, my label didn't feel like was worth releasing. I still felt like I just had to try because that's a part of my journey as an artist ― finding ways to be more honest and true to myself with each song that I write hopefully, but definitely with each project that I do.
So I paid for it out of my own pocket. I called my friend Greg Latimer up and I was like, "Hey, man, the label doesn't want me to do this, I'll pay you out of my own pocket to make this with me.” He said yes, God bless him, he's a very sweet man. He and I just holed up without really telling anybody. Then I started turning songs into the label and they were cool. I appreciate that everybody said how they felt, but everybody also kept an open mind about everything. That feels like such a great lesson to me for the world that I live in right now. You know what I mean, to not judge too quickly or get too mad about them not seeing me as a producer. I had to keep a cool head because there was work to be done.
At the end of the day, it's great for them as well if you turn out to be a stellar producer.
I give them a lot of credit, honestly, because in spite of how they felt initially, they still gave my work a full consideration when I did turn it in. So you have to appreciate that for sure.
This may be impossible to answer, but where does your optimism come from, especially now when, for a lot of people, it's hard to be optimistic at all?
I've wondered if there's some sort of chemical imbalance or something, honestly. It can definitely be a fault for me sometimes. I think it just comes from a place of experiencing sadness and sad situations, all that throughout my life, the same way a lot of people have. I've learned over time to be able to find the good parts of the experiences later on. It's like Michael Kiwanuka says, man, "Time is a healer." It really is.
I can't remember where it was, but I think I read this interview where he said that he wrote “Oh Baby I Love Your Way” and “Show Me The Way” on the same day. I had a day where I wrote three songs in one day off of these hits of acid that I got from this guy in Omaha, Nebraska, when I was opening up for the legendary Shack Shakers.
That's a helluva sentence.
None of my songs were big hits the way that Frampton's were, but I did write one more. I was telling this story at a show. We were opening for Social Distortion. This guy, the next day, who had been at the show, was really upset on Twitter. He was ranting and raving because he thought it was un-punk to bring up Peter Frampton at a Social Distortion concert. I was like, "Man, this is some, like, niche tweeting. This is for a super specific audience." But for some reason, I think I was just bored in the van or something and I just sarcastically replied, "Man, I'm really sorry for bringing up Frampton at a show. What a drag that must've been for you," or something like that, not realizing that I was probably a little stoned or something and just forgot about reply all.
Frampton then saw this tweet from me, some random guy he doesn't know saying that he's a drag or whatever. He, understandably, was sort of like, "Man, what the hell? This guy sucks," and blocked me and then retweeted my tweet and was like, "There's no need to be a dick," or something like that. So all of his fans, then, were tweeting at me like I was being canceled by Peter Frampton's diehards all of a sudden. That was a bummer. I had been blocked, so there was no way for me to be like, "No dude, I'm a huge fan."
This is a misunderstanding…
A mutual friend of ours said to Frampton, "Hey man, I think this guy is actually a big fan of yours and if you go back and read the whole thread, he was just kidding. He was super nice about it and wrote me a really nice, sweet message and was like, "Man, I'm so sorry." I was like, "Dude, I completely understand. If some random person was just saying that my music sucks out of nowhere, I would be like, 'Why?'" But yeah, dude, he stays in touch and he tweeted out the new single when we put it out. He's very sweet and probably one of the nicest dudes I've ever encountered in rock and roll, honestly.
How did spending so many years as a side man prepare you for where you're at now as a solo artist?
I definitely saw some things not to do, just guys whose bands get an opening spot on a huge tour and then get kind of confused and think, "Oh, I'm famous, so we need to stay in the nicest Waldorf Astoria in town," or whatever. Then you finish the tour and the manager's like, "Yeah, so we went way over budget and we don't have enough money to pay everybody from the tour." You know what I mean? I saw a lot of that kind of stuff happen and made a lot of mental notes to myself during those times. I remember one tour where the band was so over budget on their tour that I was in London and I had a flight home, but I didn't have any way to get to the airport and I had no money. So I just went outside of the hotel for an hour with my acoustic guitar and played until I had enough money to take the train to the airport. I was like, "I don't ever want to do that to anybody else."
It kind of seems like a prevailing theme in your career is just to be a good person and treat others well.
That sounds really simple, maybe, and kind of hokey, but it's true, man. I wanna be like John Denver (laughs). I think that humanity has suffered enough and we deserve to be good to each other at this point.
What do you hope someone who may be unfamiliar with you or your music takes away from your work as an artist and person?
I can answer that question in two ways. I suppose as an artist or as a musician, the goal would be that some 11-year-old kid would hear it and be inspired to play the guitar and write some album or song that just blows me and everybody else in our generation out of the water. You just hope it continues. The hope is that this thing that you love and care about so much that you put years worth of work into can go on and that it can be meaningful for future generations as well. As a person, I hope that people can relate to it and I hope that maybe if there are things that I'm thinking about that they feel in their lives or might struggle with in their lives that listening to it in some way will make them feel not so alone in the world. That’s all that really matters.
Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.