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Creeping Further Into the Foreground

Interview

SEAN PRICE WILLIAMS — I remember one of the first things I ever heard about you. Jay Giampietro, the director and photographer, said the coolest thing he’s ever known anybody to do was you burying your paintings. Is the hope to preserve them somehow, that someone will find them? To destroy them? Or is it just for storage reasons?

 

JASON P. GRISELL — It’s a bit of all those things.

 

SPW — Did that come from some place? Has anyone else that you know of done that? A legendary hero of yours maybe?

 

JPG — Nobody that I know of in particular. It’s my version of ubi sunt or memento mori, maybe even funerary art—or even land art, where I can see what the worms do to the paintings. I did a show in 2009 in New York City where for one of the pieces I dug up a thirty-foot long canvas painting that had been buried under the Kosciuszko Bridge in Brooklyn. It was presented across the street from the gallery [Audio Visual Arts] in a vacant lot, where for a month the elements had their way. Rain, wind, sun, rats. It was part of a show called Shoplifting, which documented a time in my life when I was a petty thief. 

 

Truth isn’t stranger than fiction. It is fiction.

SPW — Do you like the idea that somebody, maybe a construction worker, finds one of your paintings in a vacant lot that is being built on?

 

JPG — I would be happy if that happened. I was burying paintings all over Bushwick in the early 2000s, I would go out in the middle of the night and put them in the ground. Lots of buildings went up over them. I also buried paintings on the West Coast, in Europe, and in Indonesia. 

 

SPW — When we made Candy Rides, the movie where you played a painter, Jay told me that you would be burying paintings. It didn’t make sense to me at first, but I realized it was a poetic gesture and represented something good. Anyways. I hear you are writing a book?

 

JPG — Yeah, I finished it recently. It took about a year to write. It started out when I was digitizing a journal I had kept during the last sixty days I was incarcerated in a California state prison fire camp. I just kept going from there. It takes place over the space of about eight or nine years, and is set in California—Venice Beach and San Francisco, and various prisons. 

 

SPW — I’m assuming this isn’t science fiction or a Western?

 

JPG — No! But it does take place in the western United States.

 

SPW — So it’s based on personal experiences then?

 

JPG — It was a prolonged experiment with memory, that showed me quickly that I wanted to present the book as a work of fiction. I have some journals and letters from that period that opened up my mind to things I hadn’t thought about in years. I became aware that I had never considered the depths of how unreliable memory is. Truth isn’t stranger than fiction. It is fiction. I’m very suspicious of the genres of memoir and historical writing.

 

SPW — With journals it seems like you can’t really read what you’ve written right away, you have to wait awhile or else you get lost listening to your own voice and nothing makes sense. Did you find when you were writing that you were consciously embellishing things as you digitized old handwritten journals?

 

JPG — I just went where writing led me. I was just a stenographer. I think people like to say that there is a new genre of literature now where books come out of real experiences, yet are declared as works of fiction, like [Knausgård'sMy Struggle books or Rings of Saturn by Sebald. I think there is nothing new about it all. Céline did it, the Beat writers did it, Vollmann did it, and probably even the writers of antiquity did in the caves with their paintings. I don’t give a shit if you call it meta or anything else. I think all books are hybrids if you look at them. One of the happiest parts of the whole process was to discover more of the canon of prison literature. 

 

SPW — Is this going to be a franchise or is it a one-off thing? 

 

JPG — The book is close to four hundred pages long and still feels totally unfinished. I feel like parts of it are missing and I can’t tell if the disappearance happened in the digital versions or if I remember writing episodes in a journal a long time ago and those writings are in the wind and just rattling around my head. I am mostly concerned with a feeling of responsibility towards a lot of the people that populate the stories.

 

 

SPW — Because you’re still alive and they aren’t? 

 

JPG — Yeah exactly. Most of the people in the book have passed and are gone. 

 

SPW — Does the book start at the beginning of your life? 

 

JPG — I didn’t write about that because I wanted to let the book exist within the time frame and place that the stories occurred. I think there’s an unhealthy obsession that people have with trying to explain why things happen, that always comes up short and reveals a flawed narrative standing in as fact. I did write a few sentences about the parrot my grandmother had when I was a child that repeated the line “How dry I am,” over and over, day and night. I thought it was a sailor’s song for a long time, but found out much later it was from an Irving Berlin song called The Near Future from 1919. 

 

SPW — Usually when you read about the early years in a biography they are kind of boring unless they’re completely made up. I read one story about this guy whose parents had a kid that died and then he was given the same name as the dead child. Someone told me recently that you grew up with two moms? 

I was burying paintings all over Bushwick in the early 2000s, I would go out in the middle of the night and put them in the ground. Lots of buildings went up over them.

JPG — My brother and I were both adopted from different parents. When I was about eight years old the family hit the road for about six months, driving around the western states living in hotels and campgrounds while my parents tried to work out their marriage. I remember taking photos at Snake River Canyon and the Bonneville Salt Flats and riding my uncle’s horse in Montana. I also hit the jackpot on a nickel slot machine in a diner in Winnemucca and filled up a tube sock with the coins. When the trip was over my parents split up and my mom came out and started a long-term relationship with a woman who was like a mother to me as well. I drove them crazy. I learned about the female form early at parties they had in the summertime. Our back yard was full of naked women sunbathing and my job was to walk around and mist them down with a spray bottle. I remember their motorcycles parked in front of the house. My father ended up with an amazing woman who also is like a mother to me.

 

SPW — Where do you say you’re from?

 

JPG — San Francisco.

 

SPW — So you were in San Francisco or around there until you were how old?

 

JPG — Until I was seventeen, then I started going back and forth between there and Los Angeles.

 

SPW — Did the Bay Area leave something to be desired at that time?

 

JPG — At that time San Francisco was far from what it is today. I started to leave because of various music projects I was working on that brought me down to LA.

 

SPW — You were involved with music as long as you can remember?

 

JPG — Yeah I started playing in garage bands when I was about twelve.

 

SPW — What defined the San Francisco music scene at the time?

 

JPG — I remember there being simultaneous scenes of thrash metal, punk, and art rock. I was in a synth-pop band that opened for bands. A couple were on Ralph Records. I also remember opening for The Tubes. There was a band I would go see called Tragic Mulatto who put out their music on Alternative Tentacles. 

 

SPW — I’m curious about the people you remember that never recorded proper albums that you were impressed by. Cecil Taylor, who still comes to KGB Bar, if you talk to him about jazz acts that blew his mind, people that he played with in the fifties and that he saw in the forties that you’ve never heard of, you Google them and there’s no evidence that they ever existed, but they were the guys who even up into the eighties you might see on some flyer—but are completely undocumented.

 

JPG — There are several bands that I remember that never released anything, but I still remember some of their songs to this day. Maybe they had tapes at the time. It reminds me of the label here in New York called Minimal Wave that put out a lot of music that was only released on cassette in its time. Tapes are why we keep having new Arthur Russell releases I suppose.

 

SPW — There is a lot of that happening. Maybe one day one of your bands will surface. What about the time you were on Star Search?

 

JPG — I was seventeen and hooked up with some musicians in Palo Alto. The guitar player had been in a new wave band called Full Moon Tan that was a bit on the Oingo Boingo tip. We played together for about a month and then one day it was announced that we were going to LA to be on Star Search. The band was called Boys Cry Wolf. We were on the show five times and lost in the semi finals to a rockabilly band from San Jose called The Kingpins. The night they won I hung out with them in the hotel hot tub getting drunk. I clearly remember their guitar tech, who squirted the Jacuzzi jet up his ass and then with great precision could squirt water at the person across from him.

 

SPW — Was Star Search the beginning of your migration to Los Angeles?

 

JPG — We started working with a manager who was managing the bass player from the Go-Go’s. She was dating Clem Burke from Blondie. After about a year I was ready to move on from Boys Cry Wolf and I started writing with Clem, Nigel and Frank from Blondie. The band never got off the ground but it was amazing to play with them. Clem took me to Bleeker Bob’s and bought me Marquee Moon and the debut Suicide record. After that I started playing music with some kids I met in the local paper.

 

SPW — So that period was a Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains kind of life, trying to get “the deal?”

 

JPG — Yeah. Maybe a couple of years, then close to a decade of vagabonding and imprisonment, the time described in the book.

 

SPW — LA and Hollywood, even now, have this portrait of broken dreams. That’s all you really see. I love it. Also, LA to me has always been more about music than movies. I feel like we could never make the movies that we make if we were in California. We wouldn’t be encouraged or supported in any way. But special music comes out of there, more than here now. In Venice you had a bedroom on the beach?

 

JPG — I dragged a mattress and nightstand that I had found in the alleyways out to the sand. I had a battery-powered lamp and clock radio and a selection of books. During the day I covered it all with an army tarp and nobody touched it.

 

SPW — You started in film by working for Roger Corman?

 

JPG — I had been staying for a short while with a girlfriend, and my friend from NYC came to stay with us. He was working in the art department for a Corman film. He asked me to join him and I ended up working in the art department for many Corman movies at Concorde, his studio in Venice.

 

SPW — You used to hitchhike and catch trains, any stories about a particularly memorable ride?

 

JPG — I hitched up to San Francisco once from LA and I caught a ride from an outlaw biker. He had a tiny pad on his fender for passengers. We were hauling ass towards the grapevine and I started sliding off and had to grab him. I thought I was going to die. After he pulled over and stopped, he looked at his back tire, which was getting notched out because my weight had been pushing the fender into it. He looked at it, looked at me, handed me some change and sped off. The sun was starting to go down and I was in the middle of nowhere. I walked a mile and happened upon some migrant farm workers that were eating a picnic by the side of the road. They gave me some food and a ride into Bakersfield where I got a ride with a trucker that took me into Oakland. I made enough change playing harmonica in the BART station to catch a train to SF and then down to Palo Alto. I had bad luck catching trains that left me in the middle of nowhere. One sat for two days in farmland before it ended up in Bakersfield, where I hitched the rest of the way to LA.

 

SPW — When did you start taking acting serious, joining SAG and things like that?

 

JPG — I got hit by a car while I was on my bike crossing Delancey and my wrist was broken and in a cast. I passed a sign that said open casting, so I thought ‘Why not?’

 

SPW — I see how your mind works.

 

JPG — I took a picture and didn’t hear anything. My wrist healed, and months later when I was in California I got a call asking if I wanted to be on Boardwalk Empire. I ended up joining SAG because I got put into a scene playing a waiter that served Steve Buscemi a lobster. The next season I played a mob enforcer. I was edited out of all my scenes.

 

SPW — That’s too bad. I’ve never seen the show.

 

JPG — My first movie was Candy Rides, which you shot. We have worked together on two movies this year, Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits and Michael M. Bilandic’s Jobe’z World—I think that makes six or seven in all.

 

SPW — When I read the script for your face was the only face that I could see. We don’t have any Warren Oates type of guys around except for Jeff Cashvan maybe, people that can act and do something surprising when you put the camera on them. It’s just really rare to find somebody who is pulling from real life anymore. I don’t know if guys don’t want to become actors when they’re a little bit older because it’s so associated with model type guys being actors, things like that. So many movies that we love have actors who were real men. Today there’s like five of them and you see them over and over, the same guys. I have a real appreciation for what you’re doing and I think others in our gang do too, as they get to know you. What’s going on with Bubbles? It’s the only band I’ve seen you perform with.

 

JPG — We are quiet right now. We were really active for a few years, and life took some turns, and it is where it is now. It never ended. Other things had to happen, and above all it was about friendship and us just getting together to play and record. It could happen again later. I had another band that was a similar circumstance in the early 2000s called The Grand Hotel. We put out a couple releases on a Finnish noise label and then life changed. I am a close friend with my partner from that project today. He’s living in the Pacific Northwest now.

 

SPW — Did Bubbles ever put out any records?

 

JPG — We put out an eight-song release on a format called the Playbutton, which is a band button with a headphone jack that the album is loaded into. Alain and me would always be recording by sending files back and forth to each other. In the end it was primarily a live project. We would play all kinds of shows when people would ask us to play, everything from tiny art galleries to Central Park SummerStage opening for Florence and the Machine. It was always a surprise.

 

SPW — I was going to ask if you had to choose a medium to work within what it would be, but it seems like that isn’t a decision you have to make. With movies it seems like you’re just getting warmed up.

 

JPG — For the amount of time that I’ve been doing it, it’s building up. I think I’ve done about thirteen or fourteen movies now. A lot of them have been with you, which is great. I feel like the collaboration with you is really one of the best creative collaborations I’ve ever had. Your sensibility, I respect it so much and feel inspired to work with you.   

Our back yard was full of naked women sunbathing and my job was to walk around and mist them down with a spray bottle. I remember their motorcycles parked in front of the house.

SPW — I think there is a real thing, which I have also read about, which is the relationship that occurs between camera and actor, which stands apart even from the more celebrated collaboration between director and actor. There can be a connection where an actor has a sense of the frame that defies understanding, like in Bruce Lee films where he knew with a sixth sense where the choreography of the shots would occur. I have worked with actors where I grew to know their physicality to the point where I knew where they were going and what they would do before they did it.

 

JPG — I read Christopher Walken saying how his acting is rooted in the dance training he had, and how it is all about finding the rhythm of each performance. I can relate to that through playing music. I’m most drawn to physical actors that go back to the silent era up to an actor like Denis Lavant, or Bruce Lee, who you mentioned. I was completely obsessed with him when I was growing up.

 

SPW —The movie we just did is kind of like dance movement with your skating, and I can’t wait to hear all the voice-over you are going to do as well. You have a great cadence that is inimitable, and you will be doing it through most of the movie. I’m more moved by music than anything else. Jason Schwartzman talked to me when we worked together about how he is completely inspired by music. We’ve had really good experiences working together, I think a lot through that connection. He’s a really good musician.

 

JPG — Yeah I remember that on Alex’s movie. He had that small guitar with him all the time. I always wondered about what drove your sensibilities. I find them to be very poetic. — END  

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