Music Q&A with Actor, Musician and Playwright, Erik Jensen
I had a great opportunity to chat with Erik Jensen, an actor, musician and playwright. If he looks familiar to you it’s because you’ve probably seen him in one of his roles, in The Walking Dead as Dr. Steven Edwards, or on NBC’s The Blacklist as Francis King, one of the infamous criminals to make the list. Erik’s other work includes a stint on The Americans (Bruce Dameran) and a play that ran in L.A. last year, How to be a Rock Critic.
I had a chance to talk to him about his favourite music memories and what he is currently listening to.
PC: Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy day to chat with me.
EJ: Before I answer all music questions, which I am enthusiastic about, some context: I’m having a rough one today – but it actually seems like a perfect time to talk to about music.
Music is so deeply important to me, my wife and I created a play about it called How to be a Rock Critic about Gonzo Rock Critic Lester Bangs. It opened to raves recently in LA and is based on much of his published and unpublished work.
The reason I’m having a rough one is because my friend and collaborator, rock writer John Morthland, died today. He co-managed Lester Bangs’ estate and that’s how we met, but John was one of the most selfless, kind people I knew. He was a great and insightful writer who deserved more attention than he got late in life. We became life-long friends and I am going to miss him very much. I am deeply sad that he will not be writing anymore. I’ll likely be listening to Astral Weeks tonight in its entirety without doing anything else.
The Black Sabbath album Lester Bangs hated is currently on my turntable. Here’s to you John. I wish you were here to edit me.
PC: Can you tell me more about the first album or single you ever bought and do you remember where you bought it from?
EJ: There was an independent record store on Main Street in the tiny idyllic Detroit Lakes, MN. I think it was called ’Larson’s’? Maybe ‘Lorsuns’. It was 4 doors away from the place you could see Star Wars for a dollar. Soda fountain down the street. It was very 1950s there. Elderly people ran that town like the mafia.
Anyway this store was about as radical as you could get there and they had high-fi stereos, posters of Farrah Fawcett. I remember the sign was Brown. It had a surprisingly large music section for a store that only served a population of 6500. It’s going to ruin any rock ‘n’ roll cred I’ve amassed doing the Lester Bangs play even admitting this. The first album I bought was a f*%7ing Kenny Rogers album called The Gambler. I threw a “f*%7ing” in there in a vain attempt to sound cool but it just doesn’t work when you say “f*%7ing Kenny Rogers” (unless you are having sex with Kenny Rogers but I did not want to think about sex with Kenny Rogers).
I wanted to think about holding hands with Linda. My first crush, Linda (hair in braids) and I brought The Gambler cassette to a town shin-dig near Detroit Lake and spent the day taking turns being the kids the crowd tried to dunk in the dunking booth, while a kid with a hockey haircut held the mike up to his boom-box. All to the sweet, sweet sounds of Kenny Rogers “Making Music for Money” which is an absolutely crappy song… Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy singing along to “The Hoodooin’ of Ms. Fanny Deberry”, and “Just Dropped in To See What Condition My Condition was In” by Kenny Rogers, and The First Edition is an bubblegum-laced masterpiece – but that album portended doom. At 10. Things did not last with Linda. If just one of those record store guys had turned me on to the Clash or even Earth Wind and Fire then life might be very different…
PC: Which song do you just have to play at full volume or the one that you gets you pumped?
EJ: The Clash “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. Also the RHCP version of “Superstition” always followed by the Stevie Wonder original in my running mix (not in order of importance). I also run to Zeppelin, a band called The Creation, The Yardbirds. Running to Zappa or Captain Beefheart is weird because you start giggling and singing about BJ’s while you run, then you stop slackjawed because Zappa just rips when he plays. I also like running to the Flaming Lips and Jake Bugg. My 6-year-old daughter is currently doing ‘shows’ where she lip syncs “Stitches”. I always really want to get up and dance with her. You know… I was not aware that eye-rolling started at 6, but it does.
PC: Which song or album soothes your troubled mind or heart?
EJ: Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. Sinead O’Conner’s reggae album Throw Down Your Arms after that. She’s been pretty open about her struggles with depression etc. I relate. So brave but somehow people shit on it. The human race can be such a-holes when others admit to struggles. But if you listen to the album, when she sings, you feel the ache she feels from the way life beats you up and then you watch it just shimmer into revelation for the rest of us.
It’s kind of the first new music from anyone I truly found solace in post 9-11. Regardless of your politics or thoughts on religion Throw Down Your Arms deserves a listen. It’s a deeply personal album from a tiny, Irish, white girl and it’s not theft (this time). It transcends bigotry, religion. I give it to people I like and also to people I don’t get on with. The musicians she assembled to play and produce… Wow! Sinead O’Conner’s a capella version of “Jah No Dead” and her cover of Burning Spears “Marcus Garvey” is phenomenally brave and weirdly appropriate.
Maybe she relates historically to being on the ass end of colonialism and being attacked for your beliefs? Regardless it takes big, big brass ones to sing on the other side of the console opposite Sly and Robbie. I’m listening to Augustus Pablo and Israel Vibration now but Sinead O’Conner’s reggae album is, I think, an acceptable first step into roots Reggae if you are really, really, pale white, and owned a worn copy of Donnie Osmond’s Disco Train.
PC: Three pieces of music you adore or three styles of music you are partial to?
EJ: I adore “Ripple” by The Grateful Dead, a family anthem; “Ghosts” by The Jam; “The Ballad of El Goodo” by Big Star… but I have a giant music star-sized request: that my new collaborator Steve Earle please record a version. If that ever happens I might end up liking that version better.
I’m partial to Reggae, ‘70s punk, Lou Reed, and John Coltrane with Americana artists like Steve Earle, Wilco and Southern-influenced Tedeschi Trucks band.
PC: Assuming you like live music what was the last and best concerts you have been to?
EJ: The last concert? Hm. OK. The last concert I went to was The Grateful Dead’s final three shows in Chicago. I admit it. I’m Deadhead. I met George R.R. Martin, who is also a Deadhead! We talked about his show and The Walking Dead. It was amazing.
I know a lot of people aren’t into the dead as a band (Lester Bangs alternately loathed and tolerated them in his article ‘We are All Deadheads’) but they created a genre, introduced us newbies to a lot of American Roots Music, were as influenced by the beats as they were by other hippies, and were workaholic road dogs who meant what they said and, for better or worse, practiced what they preached.
Their first couple of albums were astonishing, sonically. Really experimental the way jazz legend Ornette Coleman was experimental. It’s pretty punk rock, putting something out there that you know people might loathe. I know I’m not supposed to swear again but they wanted to call the album Deadheads refer to as Skull and Roses ‘Skull-Fuck’. Can you imagine how many suits, music executives, and lawyers panicked and ran scared when that memo came out? Which is, of course, the point. I think that is tremendously punk rock. Punk Rock the way Bitches Brew, Straight Outta Compton and “Blue Suede Shoes” is punk rock. Give the straights a scare.
So last, really big concert: all those Chicago GD shows. Someone dosed me at one show (without my consent) with molly water which was not too cool but … everyone was so happy to be together and the band was surprisingly tight and I had no choice but to let go of being angry about it. Literally. No. Choice. It was great seeing Bob Weir lunge around the stage like an 18-year-old.
The best concert? Let me think here… I have a hard time picking. I saw Elvis Costello and The Attractions at the Beacon. That was fantastic. Femi Kuti in France – that was astonishing. Religious.
I got to see an old legendary jazz guy, called Henry Grimes, play some really fantastic stuff last year. Got to sit with Dr. John at a piano once. Seeing David Lee Roth on the “Eat ‘em and Smile” tour? That might have been the best concert though because Steve Vai (a Zappa protégé) played leads in that unit. He was everywhere. Seeing that show brought me to really want to find out more about him (maybe in Circus magazine?) I know that’s eclectic but I can get into anything as long as it’s honest.
I recently saw Jason Isbell at The Beacon and really loved him, and his band The 400 Unit; Wilco at the Capitol Theater with TV writer friend David Handelman (who was a Rolling Stone contributor). Never been to Springsteen but he’s been known to cover The Clash and I love guitarist Little Steven’s podcast thing he does, so maybe that’s next…
Oh I know!
The best concert requires some backstory! Here goes. The first record I remember loving was The Crosby Stills and Nash album where they are on the couch in the wrong order. Rumour has it Neal Young is on the back behind that screen door. I really want that to be true so I call it “CSN and Sometimes Y”. Those songs are lovely, hopeful, angry, naïve, careful, wise beyond years, and achingly beautiful. I used to listen to it on our turntable over and over and over and over and over…
So jump ahead in life and Croz actually became a friend after my wife and I wrote a play called “The Exonerated”.
In a cycle I will never understand, it’s apparently cool for hipsters to like them again – David’s been writing a BUNCH and a bunch of bands I’m not familiar enough with quite yet are recording his stuff. He sent me some lyrics a while back and they are f*%7ing great. I think it’s going to be one of his best.
All that to say that the best concert happened after my friend Jim Hart (who wrote “Hook”) took me and his son Jake (great writer) to the baseball hall of fame. I was playing Thurman Munson in The Bronx is Burning and CSN were playing a venue near the Hall of Fame. We spent the afternoon being taken into the Hall of fame archives. I held shoeless Joe’s shoes! We hung out with David in his trailer before the show, he and Jim swapped stories from the set of Hook, having a blast. Then my phone rang. It was my however-many-months pregnant wife. A test had come in. I found out we were going to have a healthy little girl. I rushed in and told them and David yelled, ‘Mazeltov!’ He has, as people know, some experience fathering children, and then he said, ‘Kids are flowers and love is water and that is all you need to know.’ They had a Grateful Dead song on rotation and David caught my eye and grinned at us off to the side when he played it. ‘I saw your face light up!’ He said later. Lately I have found myself hanging out and working with a lot more people (famous/not/and in-between) who light me up like that and I’m just happy to be alive to be here for that.
It’s been hard to get out lately because we have been so busy. I wanted to see some bands at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and The Beacon over the last two months but I shot some “secret TV I can’t talk to people about” and missed some shows I really wanted to catch. It’s hard to keep up and make stuff at the same time.
PC: I am taking piano lessons, do you have any musical abilities, and if so, can you elaborate?
EJ: I took piano as a kid. My grandmother sang alto in the Congregational Church choir. I remember making a guitar out of the red rubber bands the mailman left, stretched over a shoebox and stretching them just right so I could play the theme song that plays when Bruce (I’m sorry David Banner) walks away hitchhiking at the end of the Incredible Hulk TV show. I made myself cry. Several times. It was very dramatic!
Flashing forward, I was 18 when I wandered into the wood shop at Carnegie Mellon and this 6 foot 7 inch guy who looked like Jesus was there attaching casters to a platform, and unprompted, I sort of blurted out to everyone, ‘Does anyone have a guitar I can buy?’ And 6’7” ‘Jesus’ turned and said, ‘I have 20.’ His name is Ben and he lives in a converted salad dressing factory and has this giant music room. He said, ‘I have one you can afford, with a small hole in the back.’
We cut a deal for the guitar ($200) and he said he would drop it off later that week and he did. But when I took out my chequebook to pay he said, ‘No. I don’t want your money. I want you to pass it on to someone else after you get another guitar.’ He insisted. I had it for 20 years. Not too long ago I gave it away to a kid in LA who lived across the hall from us. The time was right.
I had a band in the ‘90s called “Thunder’s Monkey”. As much good stuff as bad but we shut down The New Music Cafe on Canal once and got an offer to be the house band at The Back Fence on Bleecker, spec deal with SONY. I love those guys. Our guitarist Jordan Berlant did an album called Born To Be Revealed which people should look up on iTunes. If you have kids listen to the “Bunny Food” song. I don’t sing on it but had a small hand in its spontaneous arrangement. We did that a lot. We have an amazing live version of a song we improvised called “New Bones for Sally” that I might try and re-engineer at a higher quality, when we have the time. But we have a movie to direct and it’s all framing and pre-production while trying to have lives too and that seems to be the order of the day.
I’m taking real heavy 2 hours a day of practice guitar lessons from a roots blues guy now who has played with everyone and having a blast. I usually have a guitar with me in my dressing room if I’m long term on something. Mostly playing a lot of Mississippi John Hurt dead thumb stuff right now on guitar.
PC: Which movie soundtrack(s) do you never tire of?
EJ: Soundtracks from Purple Rain, The Song Remains the Same, The Big Lebowski and the entire soundtrack from the Mussel Shoals documentary.
PC: Which group or artist would you say you are an absolute super fan of, as in owning almost their entire catalogue?
EJ: I can’t give an answer to this question and remain sane. It’s already 2:30 in the morning and there is “Iron in Ozzy’s Heart”. I just switched the album to The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer.
PC: My guilty music pleasure would be some soft ‘80s rock, what would yours be?
EJ: You music journalists with your hard lines of questioning! Hawkwind, but that’s not really the worst and I refuse to answer this question. Let’s just say that… When my Medina is cold, I like it funky.
PC: What would be your most frequently worn band T-shirt and is it an original?
EJ: Debbie Harry currently. Not original. It is in rotation with Thin Lizzy and Styx. Some shirts I wear out of devotion. Others as ironic statement. Most of my friendships are actually determined by people’s initial reaction to my Styx T-shirt.
PC: Do you have a signature dance move?
EJ: No but I have 8 mm footage of 20-something of Nathan Fillion in ‘90s page boy haircut-mode, dancing at a my band’s show when we were doing One Life to Live together. He’s dancing really, really badly – like Chandler on Friends bad. Threatening to release the tape to the general public is the only reason I ended up in an episode of Castle.
PC: Which artist or song do you find yourself currently listening to on an almost daily basis?
EJ: Lately Johnny Cash’s stuff he did with Rick Rubin, and Krishna Das: largely the stuff that he did with Rick Rubin.
PC: Which song or piece of music would you like to be played at your funeral? (sorry to be morbid)
EJ: “Little Green Valley”. It’s an old song we used to sing on car trips. My dad could harmonize the top line perfectly. His parents owned a lot of Burl Ives and Marty Robbins records. That and Ripple. My daughter’s middle name is Magnolia, after the Bob Weir/Robert Hunter tune but that seems a little upbeat. I love “Do you realize” by The Flaming Lips but that may be destined to become the funeral version of the DJ playing “Shout” at a wedding. ‘They played this at the last funeral! Again with this song?”Although I’m Buddhist and believe in reincarnation, so maybe it’s wise to pick a song for eternity, kind of a theme throughout lifetimes… My funeral theme is side A of the Red Medicine Fugazi album or maybe from Metal Machine Music.
PC: Finally, what is your favorite song on The Blacklist soundtrack and can you please tell me your reasons for that choice?
EJ: “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot from Season 1 episode 12. Just to prove what a softie I am.
Again, thank you so much for chatting with me! Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter to keep up with his upcoming projects.
[Update: since this interview Erik has appeared in several episodes of the hit show Mr Robot as Frank Cody, Quantico, Chicago PD and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as well as the movies Shotgun and Police State. How to be a Rock Star was staged Off-Broadway in January 2018 with Erik in the lead role of Lester Bangs]
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.