Industrial Arts: Josey Packard & Jill McDonough

May 5, 2014

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Industrial Arts is where we talk to some of our favorite hospitality professionals about their involvement in the non-culinary, non-mixological arts.

Josey Packard makes brilliant cocktails at Drink, and sings and plays guitar in a local rock band, Chelsea On Fire. She’s married to Jill McDonough, who teaches poetry at UMass Boston. We chatted with Jill & Josey at two different bars in one evening. We started by talking about music at Audubon.

Jill McDonough: Josey gave me total permission to like pop. I never felt like I had permission before. Josey actually studied pop at Berklee. She’s like, “No, it’s good. There’s a reason you want to listen to it.”

Christine Fernsebner Eslao: Right? Owen Pallett wrote this great essay for Slate about Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and its efficacious use of syncopation.

JMcD: I want to read that, the way I like to watch men in the street rolling out asphalt. I want to stop and understand process. We do that so rarely—I guess on cooking shows, probably?

CFE: The problem with cooking shows is you don’t get to enjoy the results. It’s hard to connect it with experience.

Brayden C. Burroughs: On “Project Runway”, they show them working, but it’s mainly them shit-talking. I want to sit there and watch them make things, and I want to see what techniques they’re using.

Josey Packard: I was recently given the task to re-learn a song that Chelsea On Fire had written fifteen years ago. I was like, oh, this happens to be the one song that we had a professional video made of, and it’s online—awesome, I’ll get the fingerings on the guitar from the video. There was none of that. There were a lot of close-ups of my face, or walking down the street. I got no useful information from watching the video.

[Chelsea On Fire formed in 1994 after] a brilliant man, who was attending MIT at the time, contacted me as a resource. Even if you are an H.O.T. physics major and expert—

JMcD: Which he was.

JP: Which he was—you don’t have to do your undergrad thesis or project in your field.  He said, my undergraduate project is going to be in music, sorry. And to fulfill that project, he hired Berklee musicians.

JP: He’s now a custom knifemaker.

JMcD: He makes knives for Barbara Lynch. It’s so hot.

JP: [Adam Simha, Amy DiScullio, and I] wrote material together, as a group, until we had enough to play out. Eventually, with and without Adam as a drummer, we came out with three full length CDs plus an EP worth of material. We toured Germany three different times—I mean, full on, with the van and the weeks-long commitment.

JMcD: Squatted housing, because it’s Germany.

JP: Squatted housing. Yeah, that was—

JMcD: Totally hot.

JP: The thing that kind of pissed me off about that whole thing… I went to Berklee as a vocalist; I’m a singer and that’s entirely my focus. So I was quite happy to come up with melodic content for the band and lyrical content for the band. These were all things that I felt good about doing. I wanted to be the singer in the band.

But it turns out that, when I sing, I have really bad jazz hands.

So Adam and Amy recognized this right away, and told me that I was going to be playing guitar in the band, as a way to occupy my hands.

CFE: Were you studying jazz singing?

JP: No!

But when I sing I get, like—

JMcD: She gets into it.

JP: Really into it. It’s corny. It’s not cool.

I started at Berklee as a jazz major, but I quickly morphed into rock. I assumed that we’d be finding a fourth—a person who would play guitar, while I’d be the singer, they were like, nope, we’re going to be a power trio. They talked about it without me.

I told them I didn’t know how to play guitar and they said, that’s fine, we’ll wait. So I had a job that took me almost a year to do, and I did it. I learned how to play guitar.

So, then, after many, many years of playing—we tried for ten solid years—

JMcD: I just want to put this in here so that [Christine] can write it: she needs to find that picture of you from that German squat where you can see my bra. It’s turquoise. Josey’s wearing my bra.

JP: [It was for] a poster. The bra matched the logo on my shirt.

JMcD: When you’re on tour in East Germany, the clothes are everybody’s.

JP: My mouth is almost as big as my bicep.

JMcD: She’s screaming. It’s very sweet.

JP: After years and years of quote-unquote trying to make it, I hit a dry spot, compositionally. After a year of playing the same songs over and over again, we decided to part ways. I didn’t play music for six, maybe seven years.

But then a miracle happened. Adam called me up and said, “I’ve been so-called secretly playing drums in the basement of my house, trying to get my chops back up. Now that I can play again, I asked myself a question: if I was going to play music with somebody, who would that be? And the answer is: you and Amy. So, are you willing? My boy’s in high school now. I would love to do this thing if you’re willing to do it.”

It broke my heart into a thousand pieces. What could your answer be, to that question? Of course.

JMcD: Fuck you, old man. Fuck you.

JP: I’m almost fifty! Get off my lawn.

I’m having quite the renaissance. We’ve relearned old songs we used to play together. We’re writing new songs together. We did have one show together. We’re looking to have another, in a couple months.

Prior to the resurgence of Chelsea On Fire, most music I was getting in my life was listening to the soundtrack of the bar, and subdividing the beat into sixteenth notes. Learning how to shake to that.

JMcD: Everything I know about music I learned in the piano lessons that I hated. I played bassoon for the middle school, junior high school band. In eighth grade I finally got out of it. I hated it. I also hate drama — being in a play and having to do the same thing over and over again. Practice the same fucking thing every day.

JP: It’s incredibly repetitive, practice of any kind.

JMcD: Revision’s not like that [in poetry]. Every time it changes. It gets better. You’re doing it over and over, but every time it’s a little bit different and a little bit better.

JP: Playing the bassoon, or guitar, or singing is a physical skill. It’s an athletic endeavor.

JMcD: Yeah, it was too hard.

BCB: How has your musical background influenced your bartending, or vice versa?

JP (to JMcD): You have an intolerance for repetition in your work. And by work, I don’t mean the things that you write, but the practice of your art. You have a real intolerance for repetitive tasks.

I have not only a tolerance but a propensity to enjoy—

I feel dumb saying it, because to claim an appreciation for repetitive tasks makes me feel fundamentally uncreative as a person.

In practicing the craft of bartending, it is incredibly repetitive. Like, ridiculously so. So, too, in keeping my chops up on guitar, also my vocal chops. Those are really repetitive tasks. You have to do them over and over again, or you will lose that ability.

So, too, with bartending. And I think that’s the true link between the two.

In both cases, you are absolutely required to live one hundred percent in the moment.

You cannot be elsewhere and either bartend or play music. You cannot be thinking about what you want for dinner. You can’t be thinking about how you’re going to get home that night. Or you’ll lose the thread.

That’s the intersection of the Venn diagram.

BCB (to JMcD): You’ve bartended also.

JMcD: Yeah, badly.

I was bartending at Russell House and Misty [Kalkofen] came in. You can probably imagine what it’s like to make a drink while Misty’s watching.

BCB: I have, in fact, made a drink for Misty. I made it up, and she not only guessed every ingredient, but listed exact proportions of them. Not like the ratio, but the measurements.

JP: [Jill] assisted me at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

JMcD: You’re wearing an apron and bringing people their drinks, so you get to hear what Sarah Palin and Alec Baldwin are saying, because you’re invisible. I’ve been to that party as a guest. If you’re wearing an apron, you get to eavesdrop. If you’re wearing a dress, as soon as you stand near them, they’re like, “What do you want, an autograph?”

CFE (to JMcD): You have written many poems about bars, and drinking, and bartenders.

JMcD: Last night, I show up to pick up Josey [from work]. Last call’s 1 am. I try to get there at, like, 12:57. I texted in advance: “I am making last call.” I park in the valet parking spot [that opens up when valet parking ends at 1 am] and I come down and [Josey] makes me my one drink.

I have my computer open. Nobody’s emailing me, so I can actually work on poems.

And because that’s been a part of my writing life for—I don’t know, how long have you been a bartender?

JP: Nine years?

JMcD: People are leaving [Drink] and I’m waiting to go home with her. Or, in the case of the [Josey’s previous workplace] the Alembic, to shut the place down and drink beer and play Yahtzee.

If I deal with all the work that I have to do [earlier in the day], then I have this golden time of—I can write stuff. Lots of times I’m working on revisions but sometimes I’m going to write about what’s happening right now in the bar. Like a Frank O’Hara I-do-this-I-do-that-I-sit-at-the-bar…

The “Breasts Like Martinis” one: we always went to this happy hour at this crazy bar [in San Francisco]. Six oysters and a glass of champagne for ten bucks. There was a bartender who worked [there and also at our corner bar] and we would go hang out with him, and he was the one who told us corny jokes.

It’s like travel: “I went and rode an elephant in Thailand. I’m going to write a poem about that.” Except I’ve never done that. I’ve gone to the corner bar.

I’ve been part of a bar culture. It seems worthy of writing about, if only because there’s no other women there. I’m this weird foreigner in this space, because of who else is there.

JP: Two things about [that corner bar] that made it very special: one is that they had a neon sign outside that said “Since 1924.” When was Prohibition? 1919-1934.

Apparently they opened as a speakeasy. Or something. Or they’re lying.

The other way in which they lied was that they had two bottles of Jameson on the back wall. One of them had a sharpie mark across the label. If they didn’t know you or didn’t like you, and you asked for Irish whiskey, they would give you whiskey out of that sharpie mark bottle.

Who knows what was in that bottle. It was not Jameson. Absolutely not.

But if they knew you, and knew they liked you, and you asked for Jameson, they would reach for the other, unmarked bottle, which—I think—was a bottle of Jameson.

It tasted like Jameson to me.

[Jill & Josey call an Uber, and suddenly we’re at the Drinking Fountain, in JP, with very strong—butlimeless—gins & tonics in our hands.]

CFE: If there were a beverage that summed up your work in poetry, or your work in music, what would it be?

JMcD: A boilermaker of Chartreuse and Miller Lite.

Because: high/low.

JP: There’s a hidden inconsistency in the pricing structure at Drink. If you order an old fashioned, you pay twelve bucks for it. If you order a beer, you pay six bucks for it. If you order a shot of Old Overholt whiskey — an old fashioned minus the bitters and sugar — you pay twelve dollars for it. But if you order a boilermaker, you get a shot of whiskey — or whatever it is you want — and a beer, it’s still twelve dollars.

JMcD: Because a boilermaker is a cocktail.

JP: I think the drink that pairs well with my musical life is what I drink at rehearsal, which is a Bud Light.

JMcD: That’s sweet.

JP: That’s the fuel for my musical life.

JMcD: But it’s not a metaphor.