By Brian Tucker
“I always wanted an elephant tattoo,” Jesse Stockton says as he crosses Lumina Avenue away from Lagerheads on Wrightsville Beach. It’s a Tuesday night in late April. The night air cool, hazy enough that the lights on buildings glow strangely. Standing where its darker Stockton says he’s wanted one for almost a decade.
“I never could come up with a good idea. Drawings I saw were generic,” Stockton said of the colorful, lengthy tattoo snaking up his right arm away from the rings on his fingers. Created by Josh Sanie, it was done imitating a Japanese painting style where a limited amount of brush strokes are used.
“Touch it as little as possible to get what you need across. (Sanie) said, it’s going to be blue. My only input was teal in the ear and gold tusks.”
The artwork also graces Stockton’s Thank You Very Kindly, a 2013 album steeped in heartfelt singing and substance. The Japanese style is perhaps there too. The folk and loosely Americana album is mostly a singer and his guitar with mandolin, fiddle and banjo as flourishes. To hear it is to find Stockton’s voice at center, fierce yet done with a soul laid bare.
Originally from a small town between Monroe and Charlotte, North Carolina, Stockton comes from a long line of bootleggers. Tall and wiry with long hair, he speaks directly and the swagger in his conversation never eclipses sincerity. With tourist season approaching he speaks about what will be a season of playing music at Lagerheads on Tuesday nights through the fall. The bigger the crowd the better the night’s pay and performing there also allows for working out new material.
“I am continuously writing and Lager’s is a place I’ve always felt the most comfortable trying out music.”
The close-knit venue allows a sense of invisibility, an “I don’t care” feeling about what people think about new songs. It’s also a proving ground, where affecting someone or changing an opinion may mean he’s crafted a good song.
People entering Lagerheads either smile or wave at him. Under the red glow of a neon beer sign Stockton performs with focus and oddly enough is a bit shy. Singing with an uncaged voice, he sounds like part broken angel and fired up storyteller and whose vocals have soulfulness that’s like a combination of James Taylor and Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon.
Tonight the small crowd is comprised of locals hanging out. Outside a car passes by while inside pretty girls dance to songs, mostly originals and scant covers like a just learned, stripped down take on Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun” (that someone thanks him for when he’s done) and later an equally spare but still gritty take on The Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia.”
Stockton says he learns cover songs as edification, not really for playing gigs. It helps keep him from “getting blocked up” or underestimating what he’s creating, like having a melody and believing it’s no good.
“It just helps me find melodies,” Stockton said. “There’s nothing new. They’re all the same chords. It’s that someone put these three chords together instead of these three and it sounds like this.”
The difference is the performer, someone who sounds like Stockton. Someone that appears to have the strength and gentleness of the elephant of his tattoo. Stockton’s got a tough exterior but then there’s the introspective and observer side that illuminates his songs.
“I don’t know what it is. I just relate to that animal,” Stockton aid. “I have found the simplest things are the things worth keeping in this life. I have enough complications.”
More with Jesse Stockton
Who created the art for the album?
Stockton: One of my friends I went to school with, he was a graphic designer. I think it’s a ridiculously amazing talent. I sent a picture of this from phone while driving down the road. He drew it. He has that hand eye coordination thing going on, can take anything and turn it into these lines. He had to free hand the font. Curtis Shortell did the digital rendering of it for the album.
Did you attend school?
Stockton: I went to Cape Fear, to Appalachian for a while. I didn’t have the money for that sort of thing. I come from a long line of bootleggers, of which many of them wound up in prison for that. I’m from Matthews, North Carolina. Between Monroe and Charlotte. I’m actually from Weddington but we jump on the Mathews train because it’s right there and nobody has any idea what Weddington is, it very small.
You came to Wilmington for school?
Stockton: I came here because I couldn’t stand being in Boone anymore, just too cold. I was over it. I paid too much for rent, couldn’t find a job that didn’t paid anything, the highest I ever had there was $10 an hour and lost it three weeks later. It was a manual labor job and the bigger guy got hired.
My brother lived on Stone Street right over there (on Wrightsville Beach). He lived here by the time I was fourteen and we’d come visit. I was here surfing bad weather, no waves in a suit. This place is $1800 a month, why would you pay this to live here across from the beach? My brother was paying $300 and I was paying $355 and I live in snow, ice covered hell. I moved here in 2005, in April.
You’ve played with a lot of people around town.
Stockton: I have started so many bands that didn’t pan out. Most people want to do it as a hobby. Then they see how much work is actually involved.
You learn new songs for yourself?
Stockton: I do. I found if weren’t doing that it really blocks you up. When I got to try and write a song I get so overwhelmed that I’m doing something so terrible that I stop. I’ll have a melody in my head and think that sucks, need to do something better. It just helps me find melodies from things. There’s nothing new. They’re all the same chords. It’s that’s someone put these three chords together instead of these three and it sounds like this.
The difference is you.
Stockton: Yeah. When I say folk to someone it can mean Peter, Paul and Mary. And that’s not all.…I told a lady today I play folk music kind of but…(Americana) encompasses in and of itself so many things I don’t think are Americana, but people who say that obviously think that way.
Some singers sound pretty but there’s little soulfulness to it.
Stockton: There’s not trying with their whole body.
What are you writing now? Are you more observer than introspective?
Stockton: I don’t know. A little bit of both. There’s always some sort of politics involved. There’s always some religion involved. And my said hatred of that and politics. I think they’re the same thing. I don’t like either of them. I like to voice my opinion about that, about how people could put so much energy into it.
Do you write all the parts for songs or do you invite others to contribute?
Stockton: I might have an idea but I can’t tell a drummer what to do. I would much rather not ever, ever tell them what to do. I would much rather just say, what are you going to do, and say I like that or not like that. That’s just our styles clashing. You can’t like everything that someone does. I think its insanely degrading to have a front man telling you as your instrument what you should be doing.
It’s like fabric.
Stockton: I’m coming up with that, its very personal and it belongs to the person that came up with it. It can either make the song or make it terrible. If you heard that guy playing that guitar by himself you wouldn’t think anything about it.
BJ Barham said something like, “Don’t break a songwriter’s heart if he’s a musician. They’ll sing about you forever. Is it hard to play the songs over time?
Stockton: Yeah, I’ll make it timeless. No ones ever going to forget what you did. It does, I don’t want to think about that stuff. Which is why to write the song, to get it out of my head. Visualize it all on a piece of paper but then again…to reiterate that feeling night after night. Eventually, yeah, but it takes awhile. It eventually just becomes a song.
Your cover songs you make your own, strip them down a lot.
Stockton: That’s my favorite way of hearing a song. My friend Mike Adams (bass player in End of the Line) just finished recording this 27 song album and gave it to his friends and asked them to pick a song and record it. He uses a little recorder with condenser mics but the recording he’s got, it kills me. I said, don’t let people record these songs with full bands. It sounds so much better with you and guitar, it’s so much better. It’s more honest, it’s the truth.
Once you go back in the studio it loses something too.
Stockton: It’s a totally different animal. The tape, nothing sounds better than that tape. Nothing on this earth sounds better than that tape. You sound more realistic on that little piece of plastic than anything digital.
Did you record in a studio?
Stockton: I did a lot of the work at Screen Gems with Ian Millard. We did the rest of the album at his studio. He’s got those Telefunken microphones. Those are the nicest microphones you can find on this earth, from 1945, the same that Frank Sinatra would use, Doc Watson. They’ve been used on so many things, different bands.
Ian’s my favorite. He asks, what do you want to do? Need a drink, want to hang out a little while? How do you feel about that, let’s listen to it. Everyone else I’ve worked with has been like – have you finished with that song, were you happy with your performance, let’s move on to the next song.
He knew to put your voice in the forefront of the songs.
Stockton: I’d say the things I wanted and he would interpret that and do things on his own that I would come back and listen to. I’d like that and ask to turn things up. I’d record a lot of instruments on my own to get a sense of what a full band sounds like and take that rough recording and use that as a pre-production work to get across the idea to him. We’ve recorded most of the second album.
How did you learn to play?
Stockton: Used the internet. I learned to Sublime songs. Played a lot of Zeppelin and then Ben Harper. My favorite Zeppelin songs “Bron yr aur Stomp” and especially “No Quarter.” I’ll leave that to John Paul Jones. I just found what was real, found the real things and stuck with it.
What about Lager’s that makes it conducive to trying out new music – the close-knit atmosphere of the place?
Stockton: Lagerheads gives me a certain sense of invisibility coupled with an ‘I don’t give a fuck what you think so you can’t hurt me’ sort of thing. That place is like my proving ground, if I can change an opinion in that little place, then maybe I actually have a good song. But yes, also because it is so very close knit, and I am familiar with so many of the people that frequent there. Our show times are usually 10-2, and that’s after I’ve had a grueling day of .work for twelve straight hours.
Are you currently writing for a new album?
I am always writing for a new album. I actually try to stay away from complicated covers. I enjoy simple songs for what they are worth because if you can’t raise the hair on my arm with three chords then the words you are saying in the song are probably not worth a damn either. I have found the simplest things are the things worth keeping in this life. I have enough complications.