Interview: Aaron Lee Tasjan

  • BP Fallon photo
From the February 21, 2013 edition

Ever since Aaron Lee Tasjan left the nest in New Albany for a couch in Brooklyn back in 2006, the guitarist/singer/songwriter/producer has been on his grind, juggling countless projects in the fight to stay afloat as a working musician in an ever-gentrifying borough. He’s finding success on his terms, even if he resonates with Patti Smith’s advice to young artists (“Don’t move to New York,” she told a Cooper Union crowd in 2010).

“Part of me wonders, OK, if I showed up today, if I was just starting today, would it still be possible, or was I able to just sneak in at the very last second?” Tasjan said by phone last week.

Tasjan was gearing up for a tour with Freedy Johnston that stops at Woodlands Tavern this Monday. He’s in the process of recording So Young and So High, a full-length sequel to his sparse-but-ragged 2012 EP The Thinking Man’s Filth. The Madison Square Gardeners, his longtime band of Brooklyn buddies, just reconvened for the first time in a year and a half to record a new EP. Tasjan also produced the upcoming debut album from 62-year-old Irish DJ, journalist and photographer BP Fallon, and he’s working on a short film called “1,000 Miles of Bad Road” with photographer Curtis Willard.

He’s always piling more on his plate, lest he go back to the couch-surfing that helped him get established in Williamsburg in the first place. The goal nowadays is to lead something like an adult life with a home to call his own in the neighborhood he’s been haunting for the better part of a decade.

“If I’m going to do that, I’m going to try as hard as I possibly can to do it through music,” Tasjan said. “I’m going to need to be doing a number of different things. But if I can make it happen that way, and it’s all things that I’m into, then to me that would be a total success.”

Steps along the way included gigs playing guitar for Semi Precious Weapons, New York Dolls, Alberta Cross and more. He’s also stayed connected with the lineage of well-traveled Columbus folk-rockers, including Tim Easton and Two Cow Garage. His world travels introduced him to everyone from poet/Joy Division associate John Cooper Clarke, whose musings on “Family Guy” provided the title for The Thinking Man’s Filth, to Jack White, whose career path is Tasjan’s roadmap.

“He’s the marriage of the really smart business guy with making quality music,” Tasjan said. “He’s the guy who put those two things together and did it the best.”

As far as the music side goes, Tasjan has been toying with simplicity as of late. His latest solo work is as sweetly tuneful as ever, but presented in a noisier context akin to his live show. The new Gardeners project was recorded live in the studio, “a glorified Daytrotter session,” but it’s also minimalist in a different sense, inspired by the “elegant simplicity” of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

“We had two rules,” Tasjan said. “The first rule was every song can only have three chords in it, and only one song out of however many we record for the EP can have a bridge.”

It’s especially easy to take cues from the veterans of rock and roll — and to become one yourself — when you’re working alongside them as Tasjan has throughout his career. His many mentors seem to have him on the right track; he can pay rent in Williamsburg, at least.

“I just love learning about music and learning about all that kind of stuff, and those guys are like the best teachers in the whole world,” Tasjan said. “They don’t mean to be, they just are.”