“A Wilderness Wandered Through“
On Jason Molina & “Eight Gates”
words & interview by tom johnson
illustration by emma ridgway
The final studio album from Jason Molina,
unearthed more than a decade on from its recording,
makes for a heartbreaking and spellbinding reminder
of his uniquely powerful black magic.
When Jason Molina departed from this world in 2013, he left behind one of music’s truly great catalogues. Not just a mesmerising portrait of his unique artistry, but an overwhelmingly abundant one too. Across various projects (though all very much his own) he left at least 15 official studio albums, plus a trove of EPs, singles, and collaborations. As a songwriter, Molina could just as easily find the deep, dark depths of sorrow as he could the wild and invigorating country roads. His voice was miraculous, timeless in a way that spans generations but also that confounds such a thing. As his label-boss Chris Swanson told GoldFlakePaint in a previous feature: “It was all about that voice. He had the high lonesome sound. He could have been one-hundred years old, or maybe seven years old. It felt a n c i e n t .”
Jason’s passing, from alcohol abuse-related organ failure at the age of 39, was a devastating loss. There had been problems in the preceding years, various last-minute tour cancellations, a break from his prolificacy, but there was hope too. Less than a year before his death Jason had shared a message with his fans: “Treatment is good,” it stated. “Getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn’t want to. I have not given up because you, my friends have not given up on me.”
Despite the wealth of music he left behind, there’s still a missing, a void of what could have been. Though his music almost always felt antiquated, piped in from some dust-filled days of the past, it would have been fascinating to see where his path might have led. Illuminating that space a little comes, somewhat miraculously, Eight Gates – a brand new Jason Molina album, and the first fully-realised first posthumous release (a 2018 reissue of The Lioness included a bonus disc of unheard recordings from that album’s time period). Strange, uncomfortable, and utterly engrossing, Eight Gates was written and recorded in a whirlwind, in a small London studio space while Jason was living in the UK at the end of the noughties.
Arriving later this summer, Eight Gates is the final Jason Molina studio album. Dusted off and tidied up by those who helped him make it, it’s released as always via Secretly Canadian, the cherished label that was launched by two brothers, Chris and Ben Swanson, simply as a way of sharing Jason’s music with the world. “Chris sent me a mixtape of all this music he discovered on the college radio station, and the first two songs on it were from a 7” Jason had released on Palace Records,” Ben Swanson tells us, when we speak to him ahead of Eight Gates’ release. “When I first heard it, it felt like a recording from a completely different time, it was so unique. I listened over and over again just trying to figure it out.” With Ben still at High School in Fargo, North Dakota, and Chris away at college, the two, inspired by the mid-90s blossoming of independent music, hatched a plan to start a label of their own. After fleshing out many ideas, they kept returning to Jason’s work and sent a late-night, carefully crafted email, which would eventually, in its own small way, change the course of history.
“He delivered us a challenge,” Ben says of Jason’s subsequent reply. “He was playing a show a month or so later in New York and he said if we came along he’d give us the master tapes for a new 7”. It was the first of many challenges Jason gave us over the years!” he continues. “So we hopped in the car and drove the fourteen hours to New York, having never been there before. We saw the show, talked for an hour or so, he gave us [the masters], and we drove fourteen hours back home.”
From 1997 until his passing, Secretly Canadian would handle the majority of his releases, the two intertwined in a burgeoning relationship that saw Jason push himself to the limits, producing some of the most emotive songs ever committed to tape. “He was such a worker,” Ben says, reflecting on those early days. “People talk about that a lot but I don’t think they really understand how hard he worked. He would get up at 4:30/5 am every morning and write for a few hours. He worked a coffee shop job and at a record store, for way longer than he should have. I think he had an inner need to work, which came from his blue-collar roots and growing up in a trailer park. He had a lot of guilt about being a working musician and definitely struggled with that. Those early years of him accepting that music was his job was when he found the peak of his abilities – which was with Didn’t It Rain, which is, in my mind, the peak of his songwriting abilities, and then when he crested with the band on Magnolia Electric Co.”
Up until now, it was Josephine, the third and final LP from his Magnolia Electric Co. iteration, which sat as Jason’s final studio album. Though he had recently moved to London, that album was recorded over two weeks at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. It was during those sessions where the idea for Eight Gates first took shape. Greg Norman, who worked at the studio and on Josephine, mentioned to Jason that he had a UK visit scheduled in his diary, and they hatched a plan to record some songs during that time. “He had just moved to London and I mentioned to him that I had a return flight for a session in London,” Greg recalls when we speak with him, more than a decade on from that time. “It actually got cancelled in the end but I still had the flight and the work permit, so I could bring a bunch of equipment with me without any problem. Jason said he wanted to do some solo recording there, in an empty space or a church,” Greg continues. “So we drummed up a plan to do a simple quick-and-dirty recording.”
During this time in London, where he lived for a few years with his wife Darcie, Jason would often entertain guests with a whirlwind tour of the city, embellishing every step with wild, illustrious historical anecdotes, both real and imagined. Such offerings were a side of Jason’s personality that became more and more pertinent over the years and which Greg remembers vividly from around the time Eight Gates was made. “He put me up in he and Darcy’s house and took me for one of his day-long whirlwind, psychedelic history tours of London,” Greg recalls. “We walked for about 8 hours. He knew I was a 20th Century history buff, and he would just make up stuff he didn’t know. It was a weird experience! He would point to a TGI Fridays and say ‘Oh, that’s where, hmm, lemme see… Well, that’s where Charles Dickens’ workshop was!’. Then I would look it up later and find out he was right. It was very surreal. Anything I pointed out he had to have a story for.”
“He was just living life to its fullest. He was creating his own universe and bringing you along with it.” ~ Ben Swanson
Ben has similar memories from his times visiting Jason in London. “I visited him a few times and I definitely went on a few of those London tours. I’d grown to appreciate them because you knew that a good percentage of the stories he was telling were total bullshit, but they were good stories and that was the beauty of Jason,” he explains. “For anyone who got to know him, there was the early-period of being e n t h r a l l e d by this person and his magical life. Then there was the second-stage when you realised half of what he said was bullshit – and he was just lying to you! You got annoyed about it, then grew to accept it, then came to love it and realise he was just living life to its fullest. He was creating his own universe and bringing you along with it.”
Those aforementioned tours weren’t reserved only for visiting guests. During his time in London, Jason would often walk for miles and miles by himself, no doubt conjuring up stories whether or not there was a willing listener along for the ride. While in London he is said to have talked of a mysterious and rare spider’s bite, received in Italy, which puzzled numerous doctors and left him bed-bound, taking a dozen pills a day, though there’s no record of a doctor’s visit or any prescription records. Another claim, of feeding and caring for numerous wild green parrots that gathered in his garden, sounds just as long-winded but is lent slightly more credence due to a collection of field recordings from his time there which apparently captures the bird’s chattering.
These stories, real or not, lay the foundation for Eight Gates – you can even hear said birds in the gentle quiet between songs. “It is all kind of tied in,” Ben Swanson explains. “Part of the reason [Eight Gates] took so long is because we spent a long time figuring out how we could present this record in a way that honours Jason and is true to him. We got to telling stories about our experiences of that time, so it came through organically. A lot of it is based on Jason’s perception – or bending – of reality.”
Consisting of just nine songs, Eight Gates is sleight and cryptic, where many of his other records wind and wander, this one teases an opening and then slams the door shut; six of the nine songs fading to black before the three-minute mark. Recorded in just a matter of days, in the home studio of John Reynolds, it had the same on-the-spot adventurism as so much of his work. Very much a collaborative process, the record features the aforementioned Greg Norman, who engineered the session, as well as musician Chris Cacavas who was flown in from Germany, somewhat out-of-the-blue, to play alongside Jason.
“Jason showed up and played in the town where I lived,” Chris explains, when we speak to him from Germany, where he still resides. “I’d heard the Magnolia record and it blew my fucking mind, so of course I went. I introduced myself and we got along well, right off the bat, and spoke about a lot of our mutual musician friends. It must have been a year later when I got an email asking if I wanted to join him – I don’t even remember exchanging email addresses so it was something of surprise! Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate,” Chris continues. “So I got flown to London, found the house and met Jason there. We drank some whisky that night, and then got up early and jumped right into it.”
“I don’t really know how to describe it, but it was like he was trying to pull something out of the air. It was like a conjuring.” ~ Chris Cavacas
Chris describes the recording space as a relatively small room, just a mixing board, a drum kit, a small corner where he could work from, and a mic set up for Jason in the middle. “He had one or more spiral notebooks, just crammed with lyrics,” Chris recalls, “and we wouldn’t know what he was thinking until he stood at that microphone. I don’t really know how to describe it, but it was like he was trying to pull something out of the air. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It was like a conjuring, like he was trying to channel something. That’s how I saw it. It was very exciting for me; an amazing experience.”
“I think he just had storylines erupting in his brain every hour of every day,” Greg Norman agrees. “He whipped so much stuff out of the spirit of the moment, riding on that creative high. He would play around for a few minutes and find s o m e t h i n g . Fifteen minutes later he had a song.”
Despite the fleeting nature of the recordings, everyone involved is keen to assert that Eight Gates should absolutely be seen as a complete album of its own accord. This isn’t a collection of snippets gathered up from the cutting room floor, as is often the way with posthumous releases. “He finished it and was really proud of it, and had sent us the rough mixies,” Ben Swanson confirms. “At the time I liked it; I didn’t love it. He definitely wanted to go back and do some work to it, but then he got sidetracked with his disease and was never able to. It was always in the back of my head to go and listen to it again but I didn’t do that for several years. I think having that break and having a different perspective meant I grew a much deeper appreciation for it.”
“Something we’ve been trying to figure out is how to not make it come off as a throwaway record,” Ben continues. “It was conceived as a proper record and has its own story to tell. It’s not an odds-and-sods thing. We worked closely with Greg and Chris to try and contextualise it, to bring out the personality a bit more and help build a world around it.”
Greg Norman agrees, and sees these shorter songs and their sudden endings as a deliberate trait of the album and of Jason’s writing during the album’s short session. “They’re complete ideas,” he attests. “With those shorter songs it’s almost like a tease; you’re just getting into it and all of a sudden it leaves you hanging. It certainly wasn’t the case that we were taking whatever was recorded and trying to shoe-horn it into an album format.”
Though it sits as a distinct chapter in his story, Eight Gates is perhaps most closely married to his haunting solo record Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go. There are certainly ripples of other works in its dead-of-night darkness, however; the flame-lit journeying of Didn’t It Rain in particular. Opening track ‘Whisper Away’ is less an introduction and more a black-hole leap into the heart of it, immediately thrusting the listener into a gripping new landscape; unequivocally Molina. Elsewhere ‘The Mission’s End’ is tender, still, and completely gut-wrenching, Jason singing solemnly:
“We’re all equal along this path”
as it fades to grey. ‘Thistle Blue’, the album’s longest track, is pointed and harsh, a psalm of desolation. In truth though there’s not a second wasted here. Eight Gates is strange, stark, and heartbreaking; perfect in its imperfections.
“I remember getting home, and being in the airport,” Chris Cacavas tells us, “and I got this text message from Jason which said: ‘Holy shit, this is the scariest fucking thing I’ve ever heard’. I remember laughing so much at that. I thought that was an amazing reaction. I remember speaking to him a while after and he was unsure of how to finish it. I convinced him to let me play with it, but then he told me that the songs were on a hard-drive and he wasn’t sure where it was! Thankfully he eventually found it,” Chris continues. “I was due to play a show in London so I invited him down and told him to bring it along which he agreed to do. Wel, the bottom line is, it didn’t happen. He didn’t come to the show, I didn’t get the hard-drive, and it became this hidden masterpiece.”
“I always knew it was out there. Whenever we talked, he said he was trying to work out what to do with it,” Greg Norman recalls. “In the end, we started mixing it sometime last year. I wanted to make it sound like what I remember it feeling like when we recorded. Whatever we did record seemed to blend together and it has a starkness to it, and a vibe that at the time I didn’t even sense. Listening back now, it definitely has a mood that’s a little more sombre. It’s interesting to revisit it with all the history that’s happened between then and now. We just wanted it to sound beautiful for the moment.”
Eight Gates draws to a close with ‘The Crossroads + The Emptiness’, a song which is introduced on the record by Jason’s own voice from the studio floor: “Alright, everybody shut up, this is my record,” we hear him say. “Everybody has to go to sleep and I want to play this song.”
These little bursts of personality, tied in with his mischievous sense of storytelling, act to bring an even greater weight of melancholy into Eight Gates, presenting a side of Jason that endeared him to many and also distanced him from others. “He definitely annoyed a lot of people and pissed off a lot of people, but it almost always came from a place of love,” Ben Swanson explains. “He liked to keep people on their toes and try to find the essence of the human. To get them to act out of instinct rather than calculation. He found the humanity in that instinct. If you look at the Magnolia Electric Co. album,” Ben continues, “he perfectly constructed the recording session in a way to set traps, and engineer situations that really brought out the instinct of that band. So what you got was this perfect mix of him recording their amazing chemistry but also the process of their discovery. That moment – that lighting-in-a-bottle – is what he was always trying to capture.”
That aforementioned audio snippet is the second time we hear Jason’s voice on the record, after another introduction to the track ‘She Says’ where you hear him say: “The perfect take is just as long as the person singing is still alive. That’s really it.” Those sentiments, of course, change shape in the aftermath of Jason’s own story, and for all of the excitement that will surely greet this release, there’s also a new wave of sadness; that this is the very last studio recording from one of the greatest songwriters who ever threw his hat in the ring. Someone who offered a lantern light into many a dark night for those who listened along.
“I just hope that it will live alongside some of his other great works out there and be appreciated on its own merit.” ~ Greg Norman
“When I first started listening to these tracks again I did get reminded of that time and I was sentimental about the experience,” Greg Norman says. “I get reminded about that whole year, which started with the Josephine session, then this session, then getting to be on tour with him for a while. That was a huge experience for me. I got married that year too,” he continues, “and Jason had a really important role in making that year a big, special one for me. He was this friend I spent a ton of time with, in a weird relationship that was very stop-and-go, and when I can listen to [Eight Gates] without being worried whether the guitar is too loud I’m sure it’ll have a different meaning. I just hope that it will live alongside some of his other great works out there and be appreciated on its own merit.”
“I’m curious to hear what people’s reaction will be to it,” Chris Cacavas states. “Really, I’m just overjoyed to have had a part in doing this. One of my favourite things about it is the trust that Jason put in me, and I think he was pleased with what we did. As I said, the only feedback I got from him was that it was the scariest thing he’d ever heard, which is pretty cool – it’s an extreme reaction. I think these songs exposed a side of himself, to himself, that he wasn’t familiar with, that he’d never seen musically documented like that. I’m just speculating, but maybe he found it scary because it revealed a side he hadn’t looked at that closely before.”
For Ben Swansom, the album’s release is also tinged with sadness. Eight Gates is another chapter in a now two-decade-long story for him and Secretly Canadian, and one that will grow on without the person it was initially written for. “We really grew up together in the industry,” Ben reflects. “He was just a few years older than me and a couple older than my brother, but we were basically in the same spot and we learned about it all together. As a label we were lucky that he placed so much trust in us. He would kick us in the pants every once in a while, but he gave us enough room to grow and learn and there were points where we would push him too. Later, as he descended into his alcoholism, we really tried to work with him on that, and it took its toll,” he continues. “I don’t know that we handled it perfectly but transitioning from working with him on his music to just working with him on his life was a serious challenge.”
In any tale that ends before it should, it’s perhaps best to focus on what’s left behind rather than on what could have been. In Eight Gates Jason Molina gifts us another gripping landscape to inhabit; a parting gift from a true and very special a r c h i t e c t . “That’s probably why it’s taken so long to finish; we really only had one shot at this,” Ben admits. “I’ve definitely had my ups-and-downs with it. I’ve been really nervous about letting it go and making sure we treat it right, but now I’m just enjoying it. I only played a small part,” he adds, “but at a certain point, I had to not worry too much about it because I know Jason wouldn’t have worried that much. He would have hated for it to be too laboured over.”
As is so often the way, there are numerous moments on Eight Gates which will feel gut-wrenching in their prescience. “Whose questions have I left to go unanswered? It’s late, I know…” he sings on the static hum of ‘Thistle Blue’, while on the beautiful ‘Be Told The Truth’ he laments “How can something be so falling apart?” ’ – a question which is muddied by the personal struggles he was dealing with at that time, away from and within the incredible art he was creating. This album is not defined by his illness, though. It deserves to sit only as a reminder of Jason’s distinct personality and the playful sense of mysteriousness that so often underpinned it. Chris Cacavas agrees: “I’m sure he didn’t intend for this to be his final record,” he says, “but in the end maybe it’s not the worst farewell transmission to have left behind.”
“One of the things I take away from my own relationship with Jason is that it’s ok to create your own reality sometimes,” Ben Swanson says, in conclusion. “With all of the struggles and grind of daily life, you have to enhance it from time to time. That can really be one of the joys of life.”
Eight Gates is out now, via Secretly Canadian