Jeff Heiskell Discusses the Judybats’ Exquisite ‘Pain Makes You Beautiful’ at 30

Pop

Grandpa storytime. There once was a golden era of independent modern rock – from about 1984 to 1999 – when maverick college radio stations paved the way to the indie future and music salvation. Underground was king: no Winger or Right Said Fred videos here! Post-vinyl but pre-Internet, this was the golden “120 Minutes” era, when getting blindsided by a cool new song on college radio meant an immediate trip to the local alternative CD store. Bands like An Emotional Fish (“Celebrate”); the Ocean Blue (“Between Something and Nothing”); Mighty Lemon Drops (“Where Do We Go From Heaven”); Guadalcanal Diary (“Life Goes On”); Trash Can Sinatras (“Only Tongue Can Tell”); even the Origin’s “Set Sails Free” (remember them? No one else does). Scattered among these long-forgotten releases were some darn good albums. Entire record collections were assembled this way, featuring wonderful yet now-vanished acts it hurts even to remember.

One morning back in early 1993, local college station WVUM played a brisk, dreamy, achingly plaintive tune by the Judybats called “All Day Afternoon”. The band’s name rang a bell, thanks to their hit-or-miss 1991 debut, Native Son. But where the angular and whimsical Son could be an acquired taste (“Don’t Drop the Baby” anyone?), “All Day Afternoon” was… magnificent. Guitar waterfalls cascading like the Go-Betweens at their late 1980s best; a heavenly string bridge bursting with complexity; winding, mesmerizing vocals that swerved from baritone to falsetto in the same stanza, bracketed by whispered reflections at the gossamer edge of consciousness. Before the shock wore off, yours truly dashed out and bought the Judybats’ new CD, Pain Makes You Beautiful, that very afternoon.

Yet who could have predicted this eldritch record’s staying power? Even three decades later, Pain still leaps off this music snob’s digital shelf at least once per month. It’s an exceptionally ritualistic record: There are certain feelings, life tasks, or situations where no accessory besides lead singer Jeff Heiskell’s insidious songwriting id – call it ‘meandering focus’ – will do. And on this, their greatest confection, the Judybats managed to sustain that bewitching mood as well as any other disc from the fertile 1990s.

Since their 1995 breakup, Heiskell has devoted much of his post-Judybats career to furniture design and real estate sales in the Knoxville area. “House things always interested me,” he says today. Frugality as well: “I’ve got $18,000 debt on that truck outside, and that’s it.”

The Judybats’ original lineup lived across the street from each other, where Heiskell and guitarist Ed Winters started writing folk songs together. “I’ve never been a hip music person,” he admits. “Joni Mitchell‘s Blue was pretty much it.” Amid the heavy personnel turnover that followed Native Son – just three original members stuck around to record Pain two years later – demons landed on Heiskell’s doorstep, in the form of depression and crippling public anxiety. “That was a very dark period in my life,” he reveals today. “Music started as an escape and a pastime. Then it turned into something else, and kept evolving.” Cliche or not, one thing was certain: Heiskell and fame definitely did not get along. It was an affliction destined to get worse as the Judybats’ indie career blossomed.

Melancholia is a condition this reviewer fully appreciates, so we’ll confront the bleak stuff later. For now, there’s a superb and enduring album to discuss. Contemporary reviews run the gamut from excellent (“Their peak… A remarkably articulate and persuasive record” – Trouser Press) to fine (“a rippling batch of melodies” – The Republican) to not very good at all (“Lightweight pop overloaded with ponderous pretensions” – Associated Press). Perhaps most ironic and misguided is Allmusic.com’s judgment that producer Kevin Moloney steered things “a little too far to adult album alternative territory”. Misguided because reviewer Stewart Mason mistakes deft pop songcraft for ‘adult lite’; ironic because Heiskell adored Moloney’s production on Pain, and still does to this day.

“When I hear them now, our prior records were all overproduced. Too many layers. But Pain’s production was spot-on,” he insists. “Lots of organic sounds, all thanks to Kevin.” Organic how? “Longview Farm Studio was a barn in the country, with horses downstairs. We recorded ‘La Dulcinea’s background vocals in an old wooden stairway above the stables,” he says. “All of ‘Wasting Time’s strings were added separately after we left the studio.”

For creative inspiration, Heiskell lurched into Sylvia Plath territory by force. “One week after we got signed, I found out the person I wrote all the songs about had died,” he recalls in wonder. “Ninety percent of my songs were written about a dead person – ‘My Dead Friend’ especially.” Indeed, if dreams are considered ‘little deaths’, then perhaps this best describes the ephemeral atmosphere Pain imparts. First-side hymns like “Being Simple” and the exquisite “Wasting Time” are among the album’s best, setting a reflective mood with heartrending lines like “I learned how to kiss you / watching old movies starring James Dean”. But it’s side two’s contiguous Final Five – “Scarlett”, “Trip Me Up”, “La Dulcinea”, “My Dead Friend”, and the title track – that lodge this unique record in sovereign River Styx territory. Rarely has such a ghostly character been maintained so steadily and so well.

‘Adult lite’? Come on, this stuff is sheer magic.

“Many people want to be rock stars, but I didn’t come from that. I just enjoy writing music,” says Heiskell today. “Oh, I wanted to get signed, sure. But I didn’t go into this business to write hits for pop radio.” The Judybats nonetheless charted three Modern Rock singles, including “Being Simple” at number seven. Then debility struck, and struck hard: Following an October 1994 appearance on Conan O’Brien, Heiskell sat alone in his hotel room and cried for half an hour. “All fame did was freak me out and make me horribly sad,” he marvels. “Playing shows for music industry people was gross, and I hated every minute. But it’s a necessary evil in this business.” When the Judybats first got signed, Heiskell was ecstatic. Yet it didn’t last. “I just laid in a hot bath for 20 minutes, happy and relieved. But even then, I knew it would drive me crazy.”

Which it did. “I wanted to make money but was never comfortable up front of a band. These songs were so personal that it was excruciating for me to perform them in public,” he says. “I had to force myself to sing them live.” In a spooky case of foreshadowing, Heiskell caught a glimpse of his future self in Michael Hutchence of all people. “We played an outdoor festival with INXS that had a huge impact on me. I loved them, but Hutchence was so obviously mentally ill! It was unimaginable that he was out in public and touring in that condition.” Sadly, as so often happens in life, the falcon soon heard the falconer: “Then, a year later, that was me. I was out of my own mind,” says Heiskell. “Our last tour should never have happened, but I was the cash cow. So many people were dependent on me! Not just the band but roadies, PR people, you name it. I could barely crawl onstage but had to perform despite an average of five panic attacks every night.”

Heiskell then imparts some hard-earned wisdom, to which those of a certain age can only nod our heads. “I always knew there was a timeline, when I was going to be done, regardless of fame or anything else. But even knowing that, I stayed in much too long.” The consequences would take years to overcome if he ever did. “Never, never, never again,” he vows heartily. “If you turned me twenty-five today, I’d throw myself on the interstate first.”

There was also what Heiskell derisively labels ‘The Gay Shit’ to deal with. “It wasn’t talked about in the open all that much back then, but more nuanced. Even so, some people expected me to come out and shout ‘I’m A Gay Man!’ to sell records,” he says. “I wasn’t willing to do that.”

Fortunately, Heiskell has other engaging road stories, less somber than encountering Hutchence. “When we did Native Son, the B-52s were recording ‘Love Shack’ down the hall. We wanted Kate Pierson to sing on [Down in the Shacks’] ‘Poor Bruised World’, but her agent said she was overexposed,” he laments. Even better is this fantastical Lemonheads tale: “Evan Dando was drinking and tripping on acid and got VERY physically friendly with me at a bar,” recalls Heiskell. “As a rule, I don’t like to be touched. But he put his mouth to my ear and sang all [four] minutes of ‘Knoxville Girl’ (from 1996’s Car Button Cloth)”. Mmm, Evan Dando! A certain early 1990s girlfriend of mine must be melting with envy wherever she is.

For a man who refused even to sing in the shower after the Judybats’ breakup, Heiskell seems in a pretty good place. “There were years where I shunned that whole identity,” he says. Today he records ‘gay alt-pop’ (his term) under the Heiskell moniker with session musicians at Arbor Studios, just a mile from home. “I can be trashy sometimes, so my songs are sometimes trashy,” he says, laughing. “I wasn’t ready to write about this stuff back then, but I am now. I even wrote a song about an affair with a married dude.” This still-grieving Supertramp fan simply has to ask – any chance of a Judybats reunion? “I love the music I’m making now. I’d never reunite that band again,” declares Heiskell unequivocally. “We’re on okay terms, but not in touch. Nobody knows where Ed Winters is. Johnny Sughrue and Tim Stutz came to Knoxville for a musicians’ event, and I sometimes see Paul Noe around town. But that’s it.”

Exit question for Jeff. Given a magic wand, would he change anything about Pain Makes You Beautiful with 30 years gone?

“I literally don’t know where my copy of Pain is, and I don’t even remember all the songs on it. But I still wouldn’t change a thing,” he says today. “That organic edge made it sound so special. Not overproduced with too many layers, like our earlier albums.

“All thanks to a barn out in the country.”

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