Joe Jack Talcum, born Jospeh Genaro, is best known as one of the singers and guitarists for the Dead Milkmen. College radio favorites, the Philadelphia humor punks had a deadpan, tongue-in-cheek style that showed through radiantly on tracks like "Bitchin' Camaro," "Instant Club Hit," and "Punk Rock Girl." In the years since the band's break-up, Genaro has recorded and toured regularly as a solo performer. His discography is astoundingly vast, and to fully cover the various pseudonyms under which he's recorded would take up half a page.
In addition to two split releases he has coming out with them this summer, Genaro is touring with Samuel Locke-Ward and the Bassturd for a short run of dates. Happily, one of those few shows is at the Replay Lounge on Thursday, June 16. We were lucky enough to speak with Genaro by phone about his upcoming releases, touring solo, and the recent reformation of the Dead Milkmen.
The Pitch: You're doing a short run when you come to Lawrence, right?
Joe Jack Talcum: Yes. It's ten days, I think. Kinda short, because I'm going from Austin to Des Moines and playing places in between. Lawrence is one of them.
You're playing with two groups with whom you have upcoming split releases.
There's the Bassturd - and that's a split release I didn't even know about until just a few weeks ago - which is a 7-inch, and I have one side, and he has one side. It is a split, of course. I have one song, he has two. Have you heard the Bass Turd?
I've been hearing the name for years, so I've heard of them, but not actually heard them.
It's a guy, with a keyboard, and I guess this keyboard has a drum machine or something. It's ... interesting. He sings and he raps, and he even makes up songs on the spot a lot of times, as part of his show. And he has lights. [laughs] And then, there's Samuel Locke-Ward. He's from Iowa City. He's pretty well known in Iowa. He had a band called the Boo Hoos. I guess he won't be with that particular exact band this time. As far as I know, he has a band with him - every time I go out with him, he has a slightly different arrangement, but he makes it work. He has, like, a zillion songs in his repertoire.
But don't you, as well?
Yeah, but I'm 20 years older. I'm allowed. It makes more sense. Come to think of it - yeah, I guess I do. We recorded together up there, but I used his back-up band, except instead of calling them the Boo Hoods, I called them the Powders. It wasn't everybody in his back-up band. I didn't have his guitar player. The Boo Hoos, they were great. They were supreme. But, yeah, I'm looking forward to that release. It's a 12-inch, and we both have a side.
The last time we toured, I made plans that I would come to Iowa City a few days early, record my side of the split. He had already recorded his side of the split, but he saved some overdubs for me to do on it. And then, right after we recorded, we went on the second tour.
So, you played on his side, and his band played on yours?
He's in his band, so he plays on my side. On his side, he's basically the singer, and on my side, he's the organ player or keyboardist, and he does back-up vocals, too. On his side, I didn't play on every single side, but I did back-up vocals on three songs and I play keyboards on a couple songs. I didn't play any guitar on his side, as far as I can remember. That's how it worked out. And, his drummer played on my side, and his bass player played on my side. They're a great rhythm section, by the way.
A family affair, then?
It was a family affair.
Does playing solo present any problems: people who only want to hear Dead Milkmen songs, for example? Or are shows pretty cool?
I don't really hear too many complaints, and I actually play Dead Milkmen songs, and sometimes I hear people complain that they heard too many Dead Milkmen songs. But, no, generally it works out, I think. I get requests for songs that I will not play, because I don't normally sing them, and I don't know the words. That's the primary reason: I don't want to mess them up that way.
That goes into something I was going to ask. When you're writing Dead Milkmen songs, are they collaborative, or are there Rodney songs and Joe Jack songs?
The Dead Milkmen write songs all kinds of ways. I'd say the majority were collaborative, and a lot of the songs I sing the lyrics for, I didn't write the words for, and to a certain degree, a lot of the songs Rodney sings, he didn't write the lyrics for. We had four folks who all contributed words: Dave, Dean, contributed words, as well as music. Rodney wrote music, as well as lyrics. So, just about every permutation you can think of, we tried and did, and we have songs that represent that. In my solo set, I sing a lot of songs that Rodney write, and Rodney sings, as well as songs that Rodney sings and I wrote completely, myself. And songs that Dean wrote. Like, for example, there's this song called "Dean's Dream." He wrote the words to it, and I put music to it.
I don't limit myself to, "Oh, this is a Rodney song, and he wrote it, so I'm not going to perform it." Instead, I think more or less, "How will this song translate to just acoustic with me singing it and playing it?" And if I can do it confidently - if I'm happy with it - then that's the criteria. If I think that, "Oh, it's failing" and it really does need a back-up band.
For example, the song "Serrated Edge." I don't know if you're familiar with that one. It's from the first Dead Milkmen album [Big Lizard In My Backyard]. That was a heavily-requested song when I first started going out solo. People would yell for it. It's actually a popular request for the Dead Milkmen. People like it. But, I never felt I could do it properly. A lot of those songs, I think, depend on that catchy bass riff and rhythm. I guess I just never took the time to properly figure out how to make it catchy just when I play two chords and sing it.
But, when I'm with the Powders - sometime in the middle of that first tour, after getting a few requests for that song, we decided, "Hey, why not? We could probably figure this out." Rachel, the bass player, picked up the bassline pretty quickly, and we did it as a band.
Most bands who reunite are content to flog the greatest hits and let that be that. What led to the Dead Milkmen recording the new album, The King In Yellow?
I think what led to it was, after we played the Fun Fun Fun Fest [in 2008] - which I think we all thought was a one-off - there was a general feeling of, "Well, that was fun." We had at least a dozen rehearsals over two months before the show. We got together on a regular basis, and that whole getting together, relearning the songs, and playing them, and then doing the warm-up shows in Philly, and then the show in Austin, Texas, was all very much a lot of fun and the feeling was, "Oh, that was great. Now what do we do? Do we just say 'goodbye' and none of us see each other for ten years?"
I think none of us wanted to do that. We wanted to keep the boys' club alive, so to speak. We didn't see too much in going off and rehashing our old songs - I mean, I guess we could have spent the time going back and relearning the whole catalog. We do have eight albums that we could mine for songs for deep cuts or what-have-you. We had a meeting on New Year's Day, 2009, and we decided that we were more interested in moving forward and collaborating again. It's a good excuse for getting together, rather than just practicing old songs or learning covers - which is fun. That's what we do.
We try to learn a new or unexpected cover or something each show, and what you say, the rehash of the greatest hits - the songs people would expect. I guess there's a little formula to it. We also try to learn a few deep cuts that we didn't play much, even in the old formation. And now, since we have an album of new songs, we have new songs to play. Besides that, we're still writing new songs. None of us have stopped writing because the Dead Milkmen went on hiatus or disbanded.