Jellyfish Author Craig Dorfman: The Interview

Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story - coverI recently finished reading Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story by Craig Dorfman. The review is coming tomorrow, but suffice to say, it’s a true, objective, well-researched look at the most talented power pop group ever.

I grabbed some time for a quick interview with Dorfman over email to discuss his research, findings, and his hope for power pop (and a Jellyfish reunion).

I’ve self-published a novel before and know how difficult it is. Did you self-publish this book?

No. I was fortunate enough to have the backing of Not Lame Records, who’d put out the Jellyfish box set in 2002. They handled everything on the business end – marketing, sales, layout. For editing, I enlisted a small group of trusted advisors:

  • Someone who’d been around at the time (not a band member), to make sure I’d captured the feeling;
  • A music professor/big fan, to make sure I’d covered most of what people would want to know; and
  • A writer/music lover/professional editor whose judgment I trust, to copy edit and suggest rewrites.

How hard was it to track down everyone after 20 years?
Not super-hard, which I chalk up to:

  • Modern technology. Facebook has made accessing people much easier.
  • Luck. The folks I reached out to responded almost immediately and were generally very willing to talk, as well as point me toward other helpful people.
  • Subject matter. The folks who’d been involved in Jellyfish’s story all appreciate how special the band is, and were pretty excited to get the story out.

Crying over Spilt Milk?

Did you feel any animosity from anyone you interviewed – particularly the ex-members and their replacements? They come across as being very frustrated at being treated like session musicians.
Sure. I think they’ve all got regrets and frustrations about how they were treated and how they treated one another. That said, the wounds have basically scarred over at this point, so no one is particularly touchy or testy.

To take this a little further: when I set out to write this story, I decided very explicitly to approach it with the assumption that everyone’s point of view was fundamentally valid (unless proven otherwise). So, I saw my job as an exercise in getting inside the heads of each band member of 20 years ago to understand what they felt and why. In that sense, a lot of the frustrations in the book are reflections of what folks felt in 1992, but not necessarily in 2016.

You explained Andy and Roger’s lack of communication over the years very well – how people can lose touch and not talk to each other – but do you feel there is any ill blood still between the two?

No. I think they genuinely wish the best for each other.

Did you ever get any feeling that Andy and Roger would want to collaborate again?

Well, this is the million-dollar question, and certainly, the one people ask the most. And there’s no great answer. The most accurate answer is “I don’t know. They’ll do whatever they want or need to do.” That’s also profoundly unsatisfying.

I guess my take is this: lots of people have declared unambiguously that the answer is no, no way, never happen.

I disagree. Not necessarily because of anything Roger or Andy told me, but because they’re complicated people with lots of motivations and ideas and life is long and people change. (See: Eagles, The).

That said, they’re both pretty busy guys with piles of projects and families and friends and lives, so it’s not like either one is wanting for something to do – especially exhuming an old relationship that might well have run its course.

So, I haven’t ruled it out, but I’m not holding my breath, either.

How hard was it to describe Jellyfish’s music without getting too technical?

Hmm. Tough question. I guess I’d say it was pretty easy, mostly because my technical understanding is pretty limited. So what’s in the book isn’t dumbed-down; it’s the best I could do!

One of the fun/fascinating/revealing aspects of the Jellyfish legacy is that they’re very much a musicians’ band. The six members have all gone on to long, productive careers in music; countless bands claim them as an influence; and a huge part of their fanbase is made up of other musicians. I often say that there are some people out there who would have been happy if I’d just written a book detailing the gear the band used and the intricacies of their choices in the studio – in fact, some people have asked for that book. I am decidedly not the guy to write it.

The Jellyfish legacy

Why has Jellyfish’s legacy lasted while other power pop bands have been all but forgotten?

I guess I’ll give three not-totally-compatible answers here.

  • They were awesome. Fundamentally, Jellyfish’s records and their live shows were intricate, intense, and showed a level of musicianship and songwriting skill that few bands manage. Add to that the overall tastefulness (wardrobe notwithstanding), and that adds another layer. That is, Jellyfish managed to show their mastery without resorting to wonky 10-minute solos or flashy fretboard work. There’s a real appeal in there – the ability to harness talent for something bigger than showing off talent.
  • The players. The ex-Jellyfish band members went on to do some much-loved work in pop circles: Merrymakers, Jon Brion, Imperial Drag, Puffy, Umajets, etc.  Jason in particular seemed to be everywhere pop fans needed him to be in the 90s: Jellyfish, The Grays, solo, Brendan Benson. So, there’s a way that Jellyfish’s legacy grew as people asked, “This guy’s great! Where did he come from?” and learned that so many roads led back to Jellyfish. Similarly, I think the sudden, unexplained breakup (and Andy’s virtual disappearance after that) added to the mystique of the whole thing. No one could ever get a clear answer to, “Why didn’t these guys make more music?”
  • Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. I think there’s a way that the legacy snowballed. For example, very few bands get a four-disc box set. And almost no bands who’ve made only two records end up with a four-disc box set. So the very fact that a label went through the trouble of putting the box set out legitimized the band. In short, as more – and more influential – people decided that Jellyfish was a big deal (in a very small corner of the music universe), other folks jumped on board.

In this age of hip-hop and dance music, what will be Jellyfish’s lasting influence 10-20 years from now?

Best answer: I have no idea.

Longer, more pretentious, and equally inconclusive answer: I guess I’d take issue with the premise. I’m not sure we do live in an age of hip-hop and dance music. They’re part of the landscape, of course, and those artists are mapping some really exciting ground, but good-old smart verse-chorus-verse pop music is still very much alive and well; it just doesn’t dominate the way it did in, say, 1966.

But one of the things I’ve enjoyed about watching kids’ movies with my son and daughter is that lots of big-budget movies play super-fun pop songs over the closing credits. Are any of them “The Man I Used to Be”? No. But several of them are “Baby’s Coming Back.”

So, I’m inclined to believe that the sort of music Jellyfish made isn’t going to go extinct, and by extension, some nonzero percentage of the music-loving public will keep going back to those records.

Tomorrow: The review

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