North Dakota's Nora and the Janitors are weird as fuck. And that's why they're so cool. Below is probably the most thoughtful (and stimulating?) interview we've had with an artist since we started this thing up. Read on, and get stoked for TOMORROW!
|Rolling Stone is really running out of ideas for their covers.|
Sometimes Nora and the Janitors comes off as an aural assault, other times as a singer-songwriter strumming away, and sometimes as a full band doing a post-punk sort of thing. Is Nora and the Janitors a catch-all label for your musical endeavors?
Yeah, for sure - well, sort of. That was the intent, at least: One name to cover the variety of different musical endeavours that I want to attempt as an individual. I think it’s probably clear, even from the small amount of output on my bandcamp page, that this solo project isn’t something that’s meant to stick to one genre or idea. The only thing I plan to keep consistent is my involvement. Nora and the Janitors, until death do us part.
I should clarify that the full band, post-punk sort of thing on Girls Just Want to Have Gun is just me. I played drums and then overdubbed everything else. When we play on tour this summer and at Dreyfest, we’ll be a quartet.
I have a distinct memory of coming up with the band name in my Latin class during high school. “Janitor” is a Latin word (it also was and still is my job) that means “door keeper” rather than someone who scrubs toilets. The janitor was the sentinel standing in front of the house, keeping it safe through the night. Janus - the two-faced god of the new year whose gaze reaches simultaneously towards the future and past, and for whom the month of my birth, January, is named - the word janitor comes from Janus. Something about this connection and etymological evolution attracted me. A god becomes the protector of your home becomes the wiper of your shit-stained porcelain.
Why are all of the songs on your debut album (Frank) given two names (and both of them proper given names, the sort usually given to people/pets)?
I really thought I was going to die the summer Frank came out. Some of my friends and I thought the apocalypse was coming. I cannot stress enough how good that made me feel, so free and motivated. A literal deadline. I put out Frank because I wanted to experiment with noise and release something before dying. The names are meant to honor heroes that I held dear during that period of my life and there’s two names per track so I could honor more people. Here’s a few, but not all, because it’s fun to keep people guessing: Marty Anderson of Okay, Kurt Vonnegut, the members of the band Hella, Levon Helm and Captain Beefheart. And if you think you know what the title of the album is all about you can be pretty sure you’re right. Yep. Cellar door.
For the record, I’m fairly convinced I’m going to die this summer, although for completely different reasons.
You seem like a person who is steeped in artistic pursuits. Aside from music, what other arts do you participate in?
Hey! A perfect opportunity to plug the fact that I have a short book of poetry coming out called The Next Morning I Woke Up. Pre-orders of the eBook and the physical copy are up on my bandcamp page (noraandthejanitors.bandcamp.com), where you can go to read a couple of the poems. The books are being printed right now, so I regrettably won’t have any on tour. I have a love/hate relationship with poetry as an artform and I’ll be curious to see what people think of my writing.
Otherwise, I’ve been interested in visual arts for a long time, particularly abstract art and minimalism. (I have the same birthday as Jackson Pollock!) I usually do mixed media work, screenprinting, or sewing and fabric art. I’ve worked with digital video a little (mostly in Final Cut) but I’m not great at it, and I love photography but seriously who’s not a photographer so that doesn’t even count. My new aspiration is of a journalistic bent... I want to get better at talking to people and finding and sharing valuable information.
I know you asked “aside from music”, but I should list the other bands I play in: Slave to the Mushroom Cloud, Zoo on Fire, Zebra Corpse, and a new group that’s just getting started called the Juniper Drive. You can find some of our old material on my bandcamp but we’ll all be coming out with records in the next year I think. If you want to keep updated with any of that, you can follow me on bandcamp or Facebook or subscribe to the Nora and the Janitors Newsletter.
How do you pay the bills and what's the ratio of time you divide your creative time and "work" time into (and what do you do for work)?
The ratio of how I divide my time is dominated by trying to not have fun as much as possible. I try to not spend too much time kicking it. Television is evil, drinking is usually boring, and books and records are secondary to actually living life. When I sit around, I get stressed out, especially in social situations; I feel guilty if I’m not doing something ‘productive’ (there are lucky and rare instances where I beat that habit, though). If I’m not at work or at school, I’m trying to pursue creativity or do things to keep myself healthy. I’ve worked at a local recording studio since 2007, doing janitor work and then learning to ship product to distributors through UPS. Now I’m a “production assistant” and I do a wide variety of things: answering phone calls, gripping for audio and video sessions, playing and recording drums for studio clients, and archival and restoration of thousands of cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes and photographs. It’s a great job, I’ve learned a lot.
Being such an out-of-the-way place, what can you attribute Bismarck/Minot's seemingly vibrant creative community to?
I’ve wondered about this too, especially with Minot. I don’t want to get too cynical or negative but calling Bismarck’s creative community vibrant would be an overstatement. There are a handful of passionate individuals here - and some of those people are extremely unique - but my observations throughout my life (I was born here) have shown me a small group of artists trying to keep afloat with the bare minimum. Frankly, Bismarck is not an inspiring place. To be sure, there are exceptions to all of what I’m saying. I hate being too critical about the art scene of my home because I have deep respect for almost everyone who’s involved. There just aren’t a lot of options here and often the options available aren’t what I’m interested in. When I lived in Minneapolis, my favorite concerts to go to were of West African musicians. There’s no chance of getting anything like that here. Even seeing Arlo Guthrie in Bismarck was pretty lackluster. And when was the last time I caught a punk show here that moved me?
Again, imperative to say these exceptions: When shows here are good, they’re amazing. Nothing beats seeing drum groups play at the United Tribes Technical College’s powwow every September. In high school, I saw bands like Spirits of the Red City and Double Dagger in a venue/punk house called Project Noise and those shows changed me in ways. Intimacy is one of the most important factors in whether or not I will enjoy the performance of music. Project Noise shut down about four years ago and we haven’t had anything like a punk house since. It’s hard to keep that kind of thing going here; there’s always noise complaints, little support, lame support, etc. There was one other venue (not a house), but it was totally devoid of intimacy. Now we have Laughing Sun however, which is a wicked local brew pub that has invested significantly into getting a good sound system and bringing in quality bar-friendly music. Also, Richard Loewen is running Rhythm Records and recently expanded the back side into a small venue called SideB (clever, yeah?). I have a lot of hope for that place and the work he’s doing. Richard is one of the members of a band called Kids With Beards, who are my favorite Bismarck band of late. Evan Morgenson is their bassist; Evan and I have known each other since pre-school and he’ll be playing bass for the Janitors this summer.
Minot’s a different story and, as an outsider, I don’t feel particularly qualified to tell you what exactly the reason is for their arts community that even Kathleen Hanna lauds. The city seems to support arts quite a bit and I think Minot has a tradition of volunteerism. I absolutely adore everyone I know from up there; they’re such good-hearted people and skilled artists. I’m so excited for Why Not Fest this year. I haven’t taken off my wristband from last year yet … I am a sentimental boy.
I’ve been working on a list of artists and releases from North Dakota over the last year or so and would love help compiling it from anyone who’s on RateYourMusic: http://rateyourmusic.com/list/thejanitors/music_of_north_dakota
Truly, there’s so much good music coming up in ND these days from all sorts of genres. The future is looking brighter.
We've posed this question to a lot of folks from the area: what do you think of the influx of work/workers to Bismarck because of the Bakken?
I’m glad to hear that you’re asking this question often. The Bakken has had such a deep effect and is a complex issue. What I think of the work and workers is a much different thing than asking what I think of how North Dakota government has handled the oil curse, or what I think the role of conservation should be, or what I think of the economic gains that I’ve witnessed, or what I think the future holds… I want to answer your question but also say a little about some of these other issues.
My personal observations with the influx of workers is more geared towards the people on the periphery of the boom: Out-of-state folks who have moved to Bismarck not to work in the oil fields but to just get a job anywhere. Hearing people talk about leaving Detroit or New York because they were unable to get employment has given me perspective.
The demographic of the population moving here has been much more diverse than what’s typically been found in Bismarck, and I worry about people reacting negatively to that. I’m a white guy, and I’ve always been aware and irked at the dominating presence of white people here, and North Dakota is dumb and racist sometimes: a “hip-hop is bad for you” kind of racist; a “did you hear those scary people speaking ‘Mexican’?” kind of racist; a “my Siouxper Drunk t-shirt isn’t racist” kind of racist; and even, occasionally, an “I want to drive down to Standing Rock and assassinate the President when he speaks there” kind of racist. Anything to tip the scales towards diversity is a happy thing to me. Someday, I hope, there will be more places in this state for totally different cultures and ideas to flourish and thrive (important examples of this do already exist, of course, but more would be refreshing), and in the meantime I’m resisting the xenophobia towards the influx of workers. People always flock to where the money is, and why not? And some of the people working in the oil fields are doing really fucking intense shit and should be respected. (Intense, and not to mention, risky. Lots of deaths, injuries, and auto accidents, oil field workers and non-workers alike.)
Regardless - crime, dude. Here’s two headlines that never would have existed just a few years back: “Wearing Skirts Is Dangerous in India and North Dakota” and “Radioactive dump site found in remote North Dakota town”. A couple nice little soundbites to sum up how mangled North Dakota is.
Tell you what though, as stagnant and terrible as this state is sometimes, I do love it. It’s my home. I’ve traveled the United States enough to know how unique the land is here and that’s part of why, when anyone says “Bakken” to me, the first thing I think of is the damage being done to the land. I believe we need to conserve and protect this place, although the people in power (and many without) often think otherwise. The land is historically and aesthetically priceless but the state is willing to put a price on just about anything, including the National Park which is supposed to be a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, one of the best god damn presidents ever. There are so many wells, and there are going to be so many more wells, that western North Dakota is going to become an industrial wasteland. So much spilled oil and - you’ve seen the pictures of the flares from space, yeah? About 30 percent of ND’s oil is burned off; nationally the average is one percent and globally it’s three.
So here’s how out of touch we are: the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms stated earlier this year his belief that oil development will continue in the Bakken for five generations. Five generations! I can’t fathom the blindness of a person willing to make a prediction like that. Five generations of what? He didn’t specify humans; maybe five generations of rats. By the middle of this century, major cities across the globe are going to become uninhabitable. Even if we stopped all carbon dioxide emissions and other destructive acts right now, today, we would only slow the coming onslaught of climate change. The perspective we need to take as a culture should prepare us for the future and attempt to soften the blow by taking preventative measures. Nothing is more precious than nature and the land; I encourage everyone reading this to seek out their local environmental and conservation activist groups and to become a member.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I thought about this for way too long, and I don’t know what about me is surprising, but I’ll say this so that maybe people will think I’m an arrogant prick: I believe the punk rock community has serious issues in regards to values, ethics and economics that need to be addressed in order to maintain progressive ideals and relevance. And no, I’m not a Republican, but Johnny is my favorite Ramone. (Rest in peace, Tommy.)
I see on your Facebook page, you're geared up for some summer reading. Which one of those books are you in the middle of at this moment and what's it about?
Haha, well, I’m in the middle of a few of them. I’m bad at sticking to one book. I finished Scott Carrier’s Prisoner of Zion and the first two books in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series and all of those have been fantastic. Atwood’s series is environmentally-minded speculative fiction that really gets my brain rolling, and she’s my favorite kind of role-model: an independent woman with boundless intelligence and ambition. I look up to her. Scott Carrier is one of my favorite radio voices and his book is part memoir, part journalistic observation of parallels between Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and Mormonism in Salt Lake City, where he’s from. Now I’m halfway through Wixen’s Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing which has been super informative. A great lesson in how to not let other people screw you over.
What's your selected way of saying goodbye?
Tears. I’m a weeper.
Dry them eyes and see Nora and the rest of the bands beginning TOMORROW!!!
See you TOMORROW at Dreyfest!