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For a guy who ain't a writer, Jim Roll is remarkably well known among the hip literary set. It all started last year, with the release of Jim's third album, Inhabiting the Ball. With lyrics by novelists Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son) and Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), liner-notes by Neal Pollack and the distinction of being the first record released by David Eggers' McSweeney's publishing entity, the album was destined to be the thing that connected fans' bookshelves and CD racks.

Now, as the lead guitarist for "The Neal Pollack Invasion" and producer of Pollack's upcoming album, Roll may have cemented himself as the best musician to read by.

The Black Table recently had the opportunity to talk with Jim in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

BT: How did the Moody and Johnson thing happen at the very beginning of Inhabiting the Ball?

JR: I was just reading both of them a lot, particularly Denis Johnson at the time, and the books were really resonating with me. He would reference a lot of music in the book that was exactly stuff I loved. And between the fact that his writing completely floored me -- every word of it -- and I just had a feeling that he loved music, with him it was just kind of a shot out of the blue. I knew Chuck Prophet had told me that they had been in contact once about…maybe Chuck wanted to pitch a song for the Jesus' Son soundtrack? I don't know what. But he kind of told me that he was a cool guy. So, I just wrote him a very sincere letter, first and foremost and sincerely, just saying that I loved his writing and I was stunned, and secondly to say, "hey, I'm doing this record. Here's my first two records," which I'd enclosed. And I said, "I know you love music, so if you have any songs or if you want to participate in any way, I'd love it." And he actually responded.

So, I got an email a month or two later and he said, "yeah, man. Look, I've got a play, and I wrote some songs for the play, and some of them don't have music. Why don't you do some music for the play?" And we were off and running.

With Rick Moody, he was like the opposite of me. He was a writer and when he wrote his first book, he was more obsessed with music than he was with literature. And the book is about rock bands, Garden State, and also in the intro he talked about how he would watch The Silos and The Feelies. Of course, I'd just done a record with The Silos -- or with Walter and the current version of The Silos. So I immediately felt like we had some kinship there. He also had talked about -- instead trying to get the New York Book Review to review his first book -- he tried to get The Feelies to review it. Supposedly they'd never got back to him, so when I wrote him a letter, I was like, "hey, I know you've got songs," like I just knew it, because he was just bursting with how much he loved music. And I also was like, "and I work with Walter. I know you like Walter. And, finally, here's the flipside of your request to The Feelies from fifteen years ago."
So, I heard from him a while later. They were the only two guys I'd asked, so it was really amazing.

BT: Is it something you'd like to do again?

JR: I used to say it was a one-time thing, but I've written a couple melodies for a play Denis did afterwards, a really good play that's out now called Soul of a Whore. So, I would never have it marketed that way again, but I'd be honored if somebody who I know that was a writer came up with some good lyrics.

BT: Where and how did you first get hooked up with McSweeney's and Neal Pollack?

JR: Basically, I was on tour for the Lunette record, and I heard an interview on some radio station in San Francisco, where Eggers and Pollack were talking about McSweeney's. It was still super new. Eggers hadn't put out Heartbreaking Work yet. So, all of a sudden I heard these guys who were certainly funny and hip, and they were talking about this McSweeney's. And that made a slight impact on me. So they were in my head.

And then, at South by Southwest a few years ago, I was meeting Denis Johnson, who lives in Austin part of the years now, actually for the first time. We had already been collaborating via email, but we'd never met in person. And a protégé of Denis Johnson's, Arthur Bradford, was reading for McSweeney's, so Denis was like, "Hey, let's meet up at this thing. There's this group called McSweeney's reading and my buddy is reading his story tonight."

And so I went there and Neal was there and he was hilarious. And I think I walked away from that thinking, instead of having a record company put out my record with Denis Johnson and Rick Moody, I would have McSweeney's put it out. So I walked away thinking about getting in touch with Eggers, who was not at this thing. And I didn't know that Eggers was the Heartbreaking Work guy. I kind of only knew McSweeney's.

Neal ended up the next day, in the same van a friend of mine. And Neal was telling him he wanted to do music and my friend said, "Wow, my friend Jim just did the opposite. He's working with these authors. You should check him out."

So I got in touch with Eggers, and originally they were like, "Yeah, we can put it out," but it was my understanding that I would've had to print all my own records and everything, because that's how McSweeney's was working at that point. Like, the people who put books out with them early on, like Ben Greenman, I believe they paid for everything, and McSweeney's was more like the masthead.

So that was really cool, but I couldn't finish the record, because I needed a little money. And then The Telegraph Company turned out to be a good combination, because they were publishing books at the time and putting out records. And they loved McSweeney's and the writers I was working with, and they knew of my music, so it was like the perfect combination. But Eggers was getting kind of busy at that point, so he kind of pawned me off on Neal Pollack. And I'd wanted to work with either one of them, so Eggers was like, "well, why don't we have Neal do the liner notes." But I also don't know what he would've written about, because Neal was more into the concept. So, Neal and I ended up working together.

Then, somehow, it crossed over to me playing with Neal. Maybe I had a gig the same night as him and he was like, "come on, let's do this," or maybe he was already thinking about Never Mind the Pollacks.

BT: How did you get into music in the first place?

JR: I just loved music quite a bit, and I was obsessed with it as a kid, but I really didn't start playing anything until I was out of high school. My mom had a guitar, because she had taken some guitar lessons, and I just started messing around with it.

I was an athlete in high school, and I was busy every day of my whole life. Then when I got out, I was sick and tired of it, and my best friends were all musicians.

But, I was frustrated as a kid and I went through drug treatment when I was nineteen, so I wasn't like the typical athlete. I was walking this kind of dual life a lot of the time, but my one respite from life was music. My parents would throw sock hops, so they had all of these '50s 45s, so I would listen to like Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. And then I would have all of the music that was coming in from my friends' older brothers like Who's Next and The Rolling Stones. So, when I got out of high school I started doing exactly what I wanted. I was just like glued to the guitar I suppose. It doesn't seem like I practiced a lot, but I must've.

BT: Do you want to talk about the drug problem?

JR: Yeah. I actually was a really good quarterback, and I was supposed to go to this small college in Chicago and play football. And I went and I never went to a practice. I would just sit under a tree. I wasn't very big, and all the other guys would be bench-pressing three hundred pounds. I don't know. It just seemed like, "I don't want to start this whole thing of practicing every day of my life to get my ass kicked." So, I quit. And I had to quit the school too, because a lot of my money was tied into me playing football. So, I started working at a restaurant and just totally started doing cocaine like crazy.

BT: How'd that start?

JR: Just restaurant culture.

BT: And what year is this?

JR: '83, so it's like the height of cocaine culture as far as Chicagoland. And it didn't have as bad a reputation as you'd think. I mean it's obviously a heavy-duty drug; people knew that. But it still had like that kind of rich-man's aspirin thing, or it was clean, like you didn't stink like booze, so it has this weird stigma of not being addictive, which is hilarious. So immediately I got addicted. But I was eighteen and making a hundred-and-fifty bucks a night waitering, so I just kind of had too much cash. I have a very addictive personality and I just got hooked on it. I kind of bombed out after a year. I ended up doing an outpatient treatment, and I stayed clean for a while. I never really returned to the addiction of cocaine, but I started drinking again after a year or so, and then that became a problem. And then I finally quit when I was twenty-two, and now I don't do anything.

BT: Did it affect the music negatively then? Does it affect it positively now?

JR: I was in a band, when I quit drinking, called The Bald Willies, and we were a pretty good band. And my last drug was on stage. I overdosed big-time on LSD at the end of my drinking, which is when I got scared enough to go, "oh, I better quit doing this." I went from high school quarterback to fried LSD guy in two years or whatever. And I only ever did LSD for three weeks, but I did it every day. Then I had a classic bad trip. So, finally, I decided -- and it took months because I was so fried -- to clean up. Then I tried to go back out and play one more gig after I'd been straight for like a week, and halfway through the show I was drinking a whole pitcher of beer. The point being that I ended up having to quit the band and actually quit music for ten years. I didn't quit playing in my room or writing songs, but I basically just kind of couldn't see a place for me to be on stage or be in bars. It wasn't like I was afraid of bars, but it was like priorities at that point. So, from age twenty-two to thirty two, I didn't play a show.

BT: So, what happened when you were 32?

JR: I had decided I was going to study religion in Boston. I wanted to compare Buddhism and Christianity, and I got a scholarship to Boston University to do this. And I was really starting to idealize this whole move. And I think I was almost picturing this move as going to Mecca. I don't know. It was really twisted.

But I got out there and a bunch of shit was going on. The school was actually pretty cool, but I realized that it wasn't what I was picturing it to be. It really stunned me, and it knocked me out. So I flew back home, and I was incredibly depressed. I think what I was doing was idealizing this thing and keeping my energy up out of depression by picturing this big change. And when I realized it was all that, the big illusion holding up my spirits just collapsed and I fell into this monster depression. So, I came back to Ann Arbor, and I couldn't sleep. I finally broke down and went to the hospital. I thought I was nuts. It's funny, because I have a social work degree, and I didn't know I was depressed. But the affect of that whole process -- after thinking I was nuts or that depressed or whatever -- I said, "I'm going to do what I want." I was like, "if you're trying to do the right thing all the time and you almost go nuts, then fuck it, I'm going to do what I love."

BT: You sort of have an image as the musician of the literary scene. Is that something you want to shake? Is it something you want to embrace? Do you think it will follow you?

JR: It sounds a little dorky when you say it out loud, but I like it, you know? What I think people didn't get about Inhabiting the Ball is it wasn't a concept, it was an opportunity. It was a thrill. I like Dennis Johnson. I like Rick Moody. They have lyrics. They are good people. I am a musician. I'm a good person. I want to put them together and see what happens. You know? Why the fuck not? So, I'm okay with it. I'm not hugely famous, and I like books, and I like writers, and it's all okay with me. I've never been one to shake images. I think alt-country hurts me at times, and it's also helped me at times, but it certainly doesn't affect what kind of music I make. I'm a complete prisoner of the limitations of my own vision. So, I'm working within my limitations and within my creative vision, and that's all I have. I'm not talented enough to be calculating.

I just do what I can and work with good people, and if it leads me down this road, I'm totally cool with it.