Interview with Dave Cobb about new project, Movie Jail

Photo by Nick Thelen

Movie Jail might be a brand new band, but for those in the know, Movie Jail is more like a supergroup. Led by Dave Cobb (Nativity Singers, ATTEMPT), and featuring current and former members of Big Fresh, Jeanne Vomit-Terror, D.A.D., and frigidkitty, Movie Jail is a veritable who’s-who of Central Kentucky’s best musicians. The band recently released a critically acclaimed self titled EP, overflowing with subtle complexity, delicious hooks, and quirky but relatable themes. I caught up with Dave Cobb to talk about how Movie Jail came to be, as well as some of the themes and ideas behind the music.

First of all, tell me about your band name. Why Movie Jail?

I first noticed this term in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, and it just appealed to me for some reason. I’m surprised another band hasn’t used it. “Movie Jail” refers to the way studios penalize filmmakers by withholding work, usually after a flop. The term is sometimes applied to actors who turn down a project (Google “Keanu Reeves” and “Speed 2”). I like that it sounds funny but is also a relatable concept, in that filmmakers live with perpetual insecurity just like the rest of us.

This album was mixed by John McEntire of Tortoise. What prompted you to reach out to John for the mixing of this album?

I have followed John’s bands for years and was aware of his role in shaping the sound of Tortoise albums. The Sea and Cake made even more of an impression on me, especially “The Fawn” and “Oui”—even the cover art. Both bands widened the frame of rock music in a way that, I felt, was impossible to ignore. John also co-produced and performed on several Stereolab albums, including “Dots and Loops.” I would have contacted him on the basis of any one of these records. I didn’t even look at his other credits until we began working with him, but it is a crazy long list and worth checking out.

I don’t know if he has an exact philosophy about mixing/production, but what I hear on so many of these records is a genius for capturing rhythmically and harmonically complex music in a clean and natural-sounding way—which ended up being crucial for the EP as we added more and more layers. I like Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings because even if they’re not “natural” in a technical sense, he created his own version of “natural” that became the gold standard. This is just my own comparison, and I have no idea if John would see the connection!

L-R: Kim Conlee, Austin Wilkerson, Dave Cobb, Nick Coleman, Thomas Usher. Photo by Nick Thelen.

Tell us about the other musicians that are featured in this project. What did you feel like each of them brought to the table?

Basically, this band formed in parallel to the recording process, along with a few moments of serendipity. I have been obsessed with the vibraphone for years, partly because of Tortoise and partly because of Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch,” but it never seemed like a practical instrument for a rock band. By chance, someone gave an antique vibraphone to our drummer, Austin Wilkerson. We figured out pretty quickly that it was beyond repair, so I asked John McEntire to play on the record instead—sort of an obvious choice. Amazingly, he said yes.

Meanwhile, I’m at book club, and a friend mentions that he has a fully operational vibraphone for sale. Suddenly, there’s this notion of having vibraphone as part of a live band. Kim Conlee had already composed the flute arrangement for “Call the Neighbors” and also played on “Stop at the Mark.” She is a formally trained pianist and can sight-read music, so the vibraphone just lived with Kim for a few months while we were prepping for live gigs. As the instrumentation became more complex, Austin started creating sheet music for our songs and even arranging some of the parts.

I played with Nick and Kim previously in ATTEMPT and have performed with Thomas, Nick, and Kim in Jeanne Vomit-Terror. Nick and Kim played together in Big Fresh. Thomas and Austin also play in Kim’s main project, frigidkitty. It’s a big Desperate Spirits party.

What would you say were some of your primary influences for this project, as far as style and production? Would you say the Movie Jail aesthetic was more intentional, or more the byproduct of the musicians you chose to participate?

I churn out tons of ideas that never see the light of day, so Movie Jail is intentional in that sense. There is definitely a filtering process. And then, the band is really good at bouncing off those ideas and allowing parts of a song to develop, expand, contract, and so on. Often it’s a matter of cutting down a five-minute song to four minutes. It’s important that songs progress naturally and don’t overstay their welcome. As long as a song holds attention, I think it’s fine to cycle through three different time signatures or have a chord change that happens only once. I love playing in a band full of experienced musicians, because everyone seems to recognize if something feels forced. There is good intuition all around.

Your self-titled EP was released on March 3. The first thing I noticed when I saw your promo was the striking artwork, which captured a visual style that, I feel, perfectly pairs with your music. Tell us about the artist and how this theme was developed.

The cover illustration was created by Simone Thornton, an Austin-based artist and graphic designer. Her Instagram handle is @real_gold, and that’s probably the best place to check out more of her work. I’m not good at talking about visual art, but her work is bold and immediately recognizable. She draws a lot of inspiration from popular culture, nostalgia, and natural imagery.

I agree that it pairs well with the music—maybe something about the angles and the high contrast? The alarm clock was inspired by a line in “Call the Neighbors,” the second song on the record. Simone created the illustration based on an old alarm clock my grandmother gave to me when I was 12 or 13 years old. I remember it being a rite of passage, with an implied message like, “You’re going to need this to function as an adult.”

The illustration went to Robert Beatty for the design and final layout. Robert is a friend and he really needs no introduction, except to say that his work goes way beyond what people see on album covers. He is a person of boundless creativity and musical knowledge.

The lyrics feel very thoughtful and literate. What are some of the themes you seek to address on this album? Do you view your lyrics as more of an exploration of an idea or theme, or is there a message you’re hoping to share?

First, thank you! I tend to jot down a lot of images and fragments over a long period of time, and then go back later to find the connections. Usually this process leads me to my usual preoccupations: the passing of time, the way memory works, the tricks of perception, how we construct meaning in our lives. Some of the lyrics are meant to be funny, and that’s probably lost in the presentation, because the chords and melody don’t always suggest humor. I struggle with that sometimes, like, “Does this sound too serious?”

I’ve also noticed that I draw inspiration from friends and family members, which is weird because I don’t think of myself as a sentimental writer. But “Ship Dream” definitely falls into that category. It’s based on a dream my dad had.

Photo by John Ferguson

Let’s talk about “Call Your Neighbors”. You stated that you wrote this tune as an exploration of “the tension between a generation that views work as inherently valuable and those who see it as a means to an end.” What prompted you to look into this theme?

I think it’s a tension that is all around us. The whole concept of work is changing, with automation and AI gaining ground. It’s hard not to explore the question of what this shift means to people who see work as foundational to identity. What happens when the jobs go away? I don’t consider myself a lazy person, and I’m actually wary of laziness, but there is a danger in assigning so much virtue to work.

It’s meant to be a funny song overall, and I think it acknowledges the absurdity of these categories and how they play out in popular culture. The narrator of the song is much cooler than I am.

The video for “Call Your Neighbors” has a fun premise. Can you share some about how that video was made?

It was directed by Nick Thelen, who’d previously shot a video for Austin’s solo project. The concept came together quickly: a standup comedian is bombing so badly that his microphone decides to escape. It’s a great premise, because it sets up a classic chase sequence and you have room to improvise and insert whatever sort of imagery you like. Ruda Tovar was our first choice for the main role, since he does standup comedy in real life and has really good instincts about acting and all manner of performance (he is also a musician).

The bar scenes were my favorite part, because we just asked a bunch of friends to come “pretend” to hang out, which is the same as actually hanging out. Nick blended together the footage from Al’s Bar (in Lexington) with the scenes from a set we constructed at Cloud Seeds studio (home of the “Dream Wishes” web series!).

I think there were nine different locations, and it took an entire year to shoot, just because we started in the fall when daylight hours are limited—and then it was too cold to shoot outside. We had to wait for the seasons to come back around!

Do you have a full length album in the works? If so, how is that going?

We have nearly enough material for a full-length and good sense of how we want to record it. As with so many things, it’s a matter of committing to a schedule—and committing to a single, definitive version of each song, rather than tinkering forever.

Finally, you have some live shows set up for this year. When and where can we catch Movie Jail?

Yes, we have a Cincinnati show coming up on March 31 at the Comet, with a local band called Plug. And then we have a Lexington show on April 2 at the Burl, with Quiet Hollers and our pals Letters of Acceptance. We also have an upcoming festival date, which we’ll be announcing soon.

Check out Movie Jail’s self titled EP here, and follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and anywhere else that you see them!

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