Jeremy Messersmith is all over the map on his new album Late Stage Capitalism—and that’s not a bad thing.
Over the course of 11 new songs, Messersmith time-travels to 1960s-era pop while taking detours to everything from a French-influenced cocktail party tune “Postmodern Girl” to an out-of-this-world orchestral “Once You Get to Know Us.” Castanets and trumpets infuse “All the Cool Girls” with Latin flair while pedal steel pushes “Fireflower” into Americana territory. Fret not, romantics; Messersmith does revisit his old stomping grounds—heart-wrenching love songs—on a couple tracks, most notably “Don’t Call It Love,” a mournful, string-laden lament in which he sings that love is “just a word that I don’t care to hear again.”
We caught up with the 38-year-old singer-songwriter ahead of his album release show at First Avenue tonight.
City Pages: Why the title Late Stage Capitalism?
Jeremy Messersmith: It seemed like a really, really good lens for looking at the world. Also, I try to make my records sound as absolutely boring as possible. I feel like that really worked with this one. I’m sure the label is incredibly enthusiastic about a title that sounds like an economics textbook.
CP: Instrumentally, the album isn’t boring at all. It’s pretty varied from track to track.
JM: Yeah. It is like a musical grab-bag. There’s a bunch of Bacharach kind of schmaltz in there. I wanted things to sound a little bit kind of dated to perhaps echo a little bit about how, maybe, our economic structures are a little bit dated.
CP: You hosted a telethon for Jeff Bezos earlier this month. Where did that idea come from?
JM: It came from me and my friend Phil Jones, who did the album artwork. We were following a bunch of ideas. I think any system—social system, economic system—all kind of have an absurdity at their core. I kind of wanted to channel the Yippies and other people who tried to levitate the Pentagon during the height of the Vietnam war. I thought it was a fun way to engage in some prankster activism and obviously we’re spoofing the idea of trickle-down economics by throwing a telethon for the richest man on Earth. That’s absurd and it’s kind of crazy but it’s also not as crazy as Amazon not paying its workers very well and them having to rely on government aid programs to stay alive, or Amazon paying no corporate taxes.
CP: Are you seriously donating the money raised to Jeff Bezos?
JM: I give enough money to Jeff Bezos on a personal level. But no, we raised money for the Against Malaria Foundation, which is maybe the best your money can do from an ethical standpoint. About $200 there saves one human life by buying mosquito nets. I don’t think it’s a very hip charitable organization but I think it does a lot of quantifiable good.
CP: You have a song about televangelist Jim Bakker on the new album. Why did he merit a song?
JM: I grew up watching Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye. But also, we went to the same school [North Central University], oddly enough. I wanted the song to be about how being a televangelist is, to me, one of the absurdities of capitalism, how these people basically take money from vulnerable populations, especially older people, and use it to enrich themselves. It’s a pretty straight-up retelling of Jim Bakker’s story and fall from grace. I think I’m going to get a lot of shit for it. But it was something that was interesting to me and I tried to write about it in the most even way that I could for somebody I think is a parasite.
CP: There are also some love songs on the album. Why did you include those?
JM: It’s important to me that records have a flow and a narrative. The first four songs are really singing about first-world problems, written from the point of luxury. Then there’s the song “Happy” about anti-consumer culture. From then on, the record shatters a little bit and there’s a bunch of themes of disillusionment, talking about the parasites that evolved in late stage capitalism, and then there’s a return to probably the most authentic peak of the record, “Fireflower.”
CP: Whose perspective is “Don’t Call It Love” written from?
JM: That’s a song I wrote a few years back after being particularly heartbroken. It’s definitely my perspective, when you’re down at the bottom of the well, so to speak.
CP: But you’re married, aren’t you?
JM: Sure. Have been for, like, 13 years.
CP: What was the heartbreak?
JM: Oh…uh…well…I don’t think that marriage gives you any kind of immunity to heartbreak. I don’t think I’m going to go into it, but I’ve been married 13 years, and within that marriage there’s probably been four distinct mini-marriages with negotiations and adjustments that take place. Some are handled way better than other ones.
CP: Who is the “us” in “Once You Get to Know Us”?
JM: I wrote that song with Dan Wilson. We were out at his house and we were playing around listening to a bunch of doo-wop songs. I recently bought a house and one thing I thought was really amusing was how realtors can describe homes, and especially ones that are shitholes, as “Oh, this is cozy.” They have all these words which are code for something else. I thought: What if there was an intergalactic real estate agent and they were trying to sell somebody on the concept of Earth? So the “us” in there is maybe a representative of the human race making the case for us to the cosmos. It’s one of the only songs I’ve written with an explicit spaceship reference. I was pretty happy about that.
CP: You’re a huge Star Wars fan. I was wondering if that ever seeped into your songwriting.
JM: Yeah. The working title for “Once You Get to Know Us” was “Intergalactic Real Estate Agent.” Usually I end up dialing back the nerdiness in favor of something more accessible. I’d like to leave the door open for a sci-fi side project at some point.
With: Monica LaPlante
Where: First Avenue
When: 8 p.m. Friday, March 30
Tickets: $25; more info here
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