SELECTED FEATURES & INTERVIEWS
NY Press (NYC)
CMJ New Music Report (USA)
The Guardian (London)
CMJ Monthly (USA)
Spittingglass Stars (Fanzine)
NY Press (NYC)
Music / Laptop
"So you’re the R.J. we’ve heard so much about," says Jesse Hartman’s mother. She offers me her hand, and I smile politely. I don’t want to correct her. After all, I’m on Hartman’s turf. We’re in the Two Boots pizzeria owned by his brother, and I’m being mistaken for the respected documentarian whom Jesse will meet later on that night. It’s all very glamorous in an almost-famous East Village kind of way.
As a member of the band Sammy, Hartman became part of a parade of NYC big nothings in the mid-90s. He’s since stepped away from Sammy’s generic rock and repackaged himself as a computer whiz working under the name of Laptop. Hartman began releasing a series of clever tunes written with a sick sincerity that triumphed over the electro-pop beats. "End Credits" was one particularly great brooding pop song, dwelling on the slow death of a childish relationship. The adulation began overseas, and MCA eventually released the domestic User’s Guide EP in 1999. It went nowhere, and only sheer force of will has given us subsequent Laptop releases.
Last year’s Opening Credits and this year’s
The Old Me vs. The New You have both been released on Trust Me Records, with
fitful distribution and little attention. Hartman’s still the best band in New
York, though, and he’s even making a rare live appearance for CMJ Oct. 13 at
the Village Underground. As we go though plenty of free wine, Hartman discusses
being a semi-hit act in a hitless town.
I’ve always thought of you as an anonymous figure, so it was surprising to see that you recently made the cover of CMJ.
It was the most anonymous cover of CMJ in history. I didn’t get a single call from anyone telling me they had seen it. You’d think it had come out on Sept. 11.
That’s the Laptop spirit I was hoping to hear. You’ve had a weird career for a guy who’s recorded a legendary single like "End Credits"–I know it was legendary because the press releases said so.
To be fair, the British press was calling the song "legendary" the day after it came out. That kind of got in the way. Your first hit connects you to people, and then you can’t get past that. It’s kind of plagued me in that way...but a lot of songwriters would like to have a song plaguing them that way. My song "Nothing to Declare" was actually more of a hit single. Island released it right before my deal with them fell apart. It went to number 62 on the UK charts. I thought that was great, but they were disappointed.
"End Credits" is definitive of the Laptop attitude toward relationships, which seems to center on mutual self-destruction.
That was literally what I was going through. I was trying to call someone to break up with them, but she refused to call me back. It was like a game of chicken. "End Credits" was sort of the only honest song on the first Laptop demo tape. It kind of became a model from there.
When your first EP came out on MCA, there was already a lot of overseas hype behind it.
I’d already had several releases in the UK on very small one-man labels. But in England, that can actually work. Sammy had a little bit of that same benefit over there. People cared about us. At one point, Sammy played this huge variety show in England with four million viewers. My career has always had that dichotomy between the U.S. and the UK.
About "I’m So Happy You Failed": You wrote a song relishing another musician’s failure, it debuted on the MCA EP, and then the label dropped you.
I knew that was going to happen. The whole second verse is about me getting dropped by a label. At least I had the foresight to predict my demise. It wasn’t even a demise–you have to start from higher up to have a demise.
Who did you have in mind when you wrote the song?
There were probably about four or five musicians and filmmakers that I was thinking about. Recently I was doing some shows in England and I dedicated it to those Swiss boarding-school chums in the Strokes. That went over pretty good.
I notice that after years of being faceless, you show up on the new album looking like Marky Mark.
Yeah, I began with that mock-New Order style, doing that whole mystery of "who’s behind the music?" I don’t know why I decided to put myself on the cover of the new album. You’ve got to be crazy to pull your yearbook photo out and stick it on a fake boxer’s body. Talk about your worst album covers of all time.
I’d still guess that being Laptop gets you laid.
Well, I’m not sure how to describe it. Do you ever really believe that Woody Allen is the big loser you see in his films?
He finally dropped the mask in Stardust Memories, and we saw how comfortable he is with women.
Chuck Eddy in the Voice described me as a sad sack who couldn’t get any action, which is a very literal reading. I don’t even think the songs read that way. I don’t quite have the problems in love that the songs represent.
At least not once you’re out of the USA. But didn’t you mention that you have to meet up with your fiancee later?
Yeah, I’m in a healthy relationship now.
That’s a pretty lame way to describe something that’s leading to marriage.
I guess so. It certainly hasn’t made the songs more positive. I prematurely named the next album Accentuate the Positive. I actually thought things would get more upbeat, but now the title’s just laced with irony.
But you’re an international music figure, so at least you could lay a big rock of an engagement ring on her.
I do travel a lot. I just became a gold frequent flier on American Airlines, which I’m very proud of. That could be the secret to a healthy relationship. But I’m not doing well financially.
I thought there were, like, 800 different remixes of "End Credits."
Yes, but I had to do them all myself. Do you think remixes represent some kind of financial success?
What’s up with your singing voice? I can’t decide if it’s a fake British accent or a Snagglepus imitation.
Some people have accused me of things like using a vocoder, but I don’t. It’s a funny thing. I’ve sort of reinvented myself to the point where I now sing that way naturally. And it hasn’t helped that I don’t play live all that much. This CMJ show is kind of my coming-out party. The band is great, with the rhythm section from Girls Against Boys. I went to college with some of the guys, so I cheated by wrangling them into it. It’s kind of an indie-rock supergroup.
Shouldn’t you just be alone onstage with some reel-to-reel tape players?
I’ve actually played in England with just the laptop computer running sequences and using projections. To be honest, I hate the way it feels doing that. There’s no energy, and I get depressed. But we’re camping it up with the live band. I’ve got the drummer playing a miniature drum kit, but he sounds great on it. I’ve got an obsession with the feel of Talking Heads on the Remain in Light album. But I hope that nobody thinks I’m saying that I like being in a band. You’ve got to play live, and this particular band has been a good experience, but I’d much rather be alone in the studio. I grew up playing different instruments, and it’s fun being able to do it all yourself. It’s funny how my career has followed this trajectory. I remember when Gang of Four went from being a guitar band to two guys doing electronic funk, and I hated it. Now here I am doing the same thing.
Do you like the new album better than Opening Credits?
It’s not as good as Opening Credits, but there are still lots of good songs.
I ask because there’s been a bit of a ruse perpetuated by myself.
I recorded 24 songs with Island Records, because the UK market demands a lot of B-sides. What I’ve done is taken the songs and divided them up into two albums. Now the press is complaining about how I’ve changed since the first album, but there’s really been no chance for a change.
The only song I really hate on the new album is the closing track with the detached voiceover. It sounds too much like Ultravox.
I just read a review from England where the
writer hated the album except for that track.
They like Ultravox in England. They even liked Sammy. You know, Sammy put me in an entire universe that I didn’t really like. We kept being lumped in with this Pavement kind of sound that really had nothing to do with me. That’s why I had to do something that was the complete opposite. There were a lot of people who were baffled and disillusioned by that. And then there are people like you, who are very happy to see me turning away from that.
Well, I wish you’d been rewarded better. I’d hate to see you reform Sammy.
I’ve managed to put together my own studio now. That’s one of the good things that came from my own major label deal. But I don’t think I’ve ever received a royalty check in my life.
That’s brilliant. Your rock ’n’ roll dream is of a first royalty check.
Does that sound too pathetic? This whole loser thing is kind of tongue-in-cheek, isn’t it? I’m really hoping the fourth album will be positive. You know, some of my relationships have been quite good. Is it possible to do this interview over as a more positive person?
Laptop plays Sat., Oct. 13, at the Village
Underground, 130 W. 3rd St. (betw. 6th Ave. & MacDougal St.), 777-7745
(also see cmj.com).
CMJ New Music Report (USA)
Cover Story: LAPTOP - He's So Happy You Failed
Inside: KARMA CHAMELEON - From Sammy to Laptop: Jesse Hartman's Maniacal Metamorphosis
March 12, 2001:
By M. Tye Comer
Hartman first strolled into the CMJ offices, he was a typically wide-eyed,
hungry-for-success East Village hipster with a guitar, eager to impress our
comfortably captive editorial staff with his smart charmingly quirky,
Pavement-inspired tunes. Of course, that was back in 1996 when the CMJ offices
were still stationed Hartman's home town of Great Neck. Long Island, and Sammy
- the indie-rock outfit made up of he and college pal Luke Wood - seemed on the
verge of something big with their first major label album, Tales Of Great
A lot can change in five years. As it turns out, the biggest thing in store for Sammy was a bout of creative and career-oriented differences that caused the duo to break up shortly after Great Neck Glory's release. After Sammy's demise, Hartman underwent a musical metamorphosis so drastic that we almost didn't recognize him as the same artist when his next recording, 1999's User's Guide EP, showed up on our desks. Without warning, the cheeky, too-intelligent butterfly-pop he embraced in Sammy had been replaced by the sardonic, laughably morose Laptop, a new wave-influenced project that lyrically rips through ex-lovers, musical contemporaries and Hartman's own ego with the veracity of a gypsy moth tearing through a ripe forest.
"When I was really young, I toured with [NYC punk legend] Richard Hell briefly," Hartman says as he sips Merlot in a trendy East Village pizzeria while the rest of the patrons suck down beer, pepperoni and extra cheese. "And I always kept what he stood for, which is that rock 'n' roll is supposed to be about reinventing yourself. So it felt okay to completely change, be a chameleon and enter into this more theatrical world."
"I got to the point where I wanted to take my music more seriously and I got tired of being part of the indie-rock movement," he confesses. "I got really kind of disgusted by the whole thing, being lumped in with Pavement and Sebadoh and Built To Spill and all this stuff that I just felt was treading water. I didn't want to be associated with anything. I wanted to do something people didn't completely understand, and something that allowed my sick and twisted personality to come out a little bit more. I think that Luke is generally a nicer person than I am. Being on my own, in a vacuum, actually helped me be funny and understand the kind of things I wanted to say."
In person, the 30-year old Hartman (who also produces films in his spare time) carries himself like the shy, polite, endearing neighborhood boy you'd expect to find weeping in the shadows during a Sunny Day Real Estate gig. But on the grandiose full-length as Laptop, he transforms into a jet-setting, bile-swallowing bastard child of Bowie and Human League that juxtaposes percolating synth-pop flourishing and new-wave guitar riffs with biting lyrics that attack all who've dared cross him in the past.
one level, the album pulls no punches. There's "Nothing To Declare,"
a self-effacing slice of electro-funk about looking for love in all the wrong
places ("I've got nothing to declare/Except my loneliness," he croons
on the chorus). "Another Song" is an almost tender new wave ballad
about struggling in vain to forget a lost love ("I can't write another
song/ 'Bout how you left and now I'm all alone…") But the most venomous
selection has to be "I'm So Happy You Failed," a gleeful tale
inspired by an acquaintance's poor record sales, driven home by a chorus of
taunting children ("Word on the street says/Your second record's dead
and/You're not doing very well/Can't say that I'm depressed/Still I could never
guess/Just how good that makes me feel").
"The song is about a fellow band, but ironically, I now want the drummer from that band to play on my next record," he laughs. "So if I name them, then I might screw everything up."
But Opening Credits succeeds not only because of its exquisite production and punchy songwriting, but also because of the tongue-in-cheek humor that underlies every cut. Hartman's emotional reflections are so brazenly absurd, you can't help but chuckle at the earnestness and razor-sharp wit with which they are delivered. Were he really as bitter and twisted as he came across on record, he'd easily drown in the same mire of self-absorbed melodrama that consumed new wave acts like Sisters Of Mercy. Instead, he simply sets a stage where his wry and highly intentional theatrics play out like black comedy rather than tragedy. (And if you're not convinced he gets his own joke, just check the computer-pop cover of Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock 'N' Roll To Me,": the best bit of musical sarcasm since Travis covered "Baby…One More Time.")
"This isn't going to be good for my image, but I feel like I've really had some great relationships," he confesses. "I've tried to write some positive songs as Laptop, but it didn't work. There's a line from Woody Allen's Crimes & Misdemeanors that comedy is tragedy plus time. Maybe I'm just romantic at heart and the reality that good things go wrong is so upsetting to me, I have to make these jokey songs about it. When I play my records for people, if I don't get a laugh, then I get bummed out. I think I really just wanted to be a stand up comic at heart."
The genius of Hartman's earliest Laptop recordings found immediate favor with the British press, including the credulous Melody Maker, who praised "End Credits" as "…the best single of the 20th Century." The hyperbole was enough to attract the interest of Island Records in the U.K., which signed Laptop to its first major label deal (MCA would end up handling Laptop's stateside releases). Yet, like many artists, Hartman was strangled by the political red tape that followed the Polygram/Universal merger of 1999, and the deal went kaput shortly after the release of User's Guide. Independent label Trust Me Records, is distributed by Parasol in the states, ended up releasing Opening Credits and is slated to release another Laptop album before the year's end.
"Because I got held up with a corporate label situation, my next album is all ready to go," he says. "It's not as one-on-one as Opening Credits; it's a little bit more societal. And we're looking for a fall release. So if you hate Laptop already, you're in for a really annoying year."
The Guardian (London)
Rock, pop & jazz: Laptop
Monday September 20 1999
You don’t really get much more New York than Jesse Hartman. The Laptop frontman has a long and rich association with some of the city’s most important cultural touchstones. He – obviously – worked for years in his brother’s pizza restaurant. He – equally obviously – attended film school, and ahs a history with a former band, Sammy, who sounded like Pavement and therefore, Lou Reed. But a certain dissatisfaction with NYC orthodoxy evidently crept into Hartman’s mind, and this is the thinking behind the impressively multi-media Laptop: disappointed with the staid New York indie guitar scene, he decided to use his antiquated computer to make some slightly more modern music. The path ahs not run entirely smoothly: Hartman’s first single End Credits featured the sound of an ex-girlfriend’s answer machine clicking in as she refuses to return his call – on stage he sings the song into a telephone – for which she summarily, this being America, sued. Though greatness of any musical kind has yet to be debuted, from such an impressively lively mind – Hartman has, after all, produced and directed a number of respected films – a twist in the tale is certainly not out of the question. Wag Club, 35 Wardour Street, W1, 7:30pm.
CMJ Monthly (USA)
On The Verge: Laptop
By Michael White
Eddie Murphy albums and Madonna movies prove that the worlds of music and film should never cross-pollinate. Yet former Sammy lynch-pin Jesse Hartman merges the two almost seamlessly on his debut album as Laptop, OPENING CREDITS (Trust Me). "I'd always tried to make movies and music," says the native New Yorker, who's also a filmmaker and actor. "A lot of the songs have dialogue created for the song, and I'll literally cast it. If the song is about two people in a bar, I'll find two actors who are friends of mine, and we'll perform a little scene." Hartman casts himself as the protagonist in OPENING CREDITS, a 12-part tragicomedy about failed relationships (romantic and professional) and their resonating emotional damage. Set against a musical backdrop that updates new wave's synthesized, romantic sweep (the Human League's Dare! springs to mind), its well-oiled irony stings and tickles. "I'm So Happy You Failed" sticks pins in a rival musician's already deflating career ("Word on the street says/Your second record's dead"), while "End Credits" tells a soon-to-be-ex-lover's answering machine to "Stop this teenage movie we've been in." "They're not hate songs," Hartman chuckles. "They're always meant to be ironic and funny. It's almost a concept album: A User's Guide To Your 20's -- maybe what not to do."
The Man From Laptop
Laptop mainman Jesse Hartman jetted over from America for a long weekend and somewhere between cigarettes talked to Brendan Patterson about how he’s not as sad as he may sound.
Laptop is the brainchild of Jesse Hartman, a man whose CV you could describe as a little more than eclectic. An appearance on The Word with John Wayne Bobbit, baby sitting for punk icon Richard Hell and bartending with Page Hamilton from Helmet are all previous experiences to his name. It’s safe to say that Jesse has had his share of strange and bizarre incidents; either through his past incarnation in the indie group Sammy or by growing up in an artist’s village in New York. In the light of his ‘colourful’ pas, it’s not too surprising that the lyrics on Laptop’s debut album “Whole Wide World” are structured like a type of personal odyssey, albeit one that has played out through the same sort of synth-pop as electronica’s most famous light aircraft pilot, Gary Numan.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, I was just having a cigarette. I still havan’t got used to British laws about smoking; apparently they’re concerned with this thing called cancer?” he says.
Unfamiliarity and alienation are already established feelings for Jesse if his lyrics are anything to go by. In the current single ‘Nothing To Declare’ he describes himself as a “Don Quixote with jet lag,” an impression reinforced by his current stay in London.
“London’s a very different city than what I’m used to,” says Jesse. “It’s kind of sprawling like LA but it’s got the grit of New York, which was where I grew up. I like just outside of Manhattan, then I moved on to the East Village where there’s a lot more happening with clubs like CBGB’s. Fortunately back then I had my older brother who would look out for me. He was kind of my guardian angel.”
“With regards to the single, basically it’s the conclusion to my story of traveling the world to find the right girl. I looked for love and all I got was this lousy t-shirt. However, I must stress that I’m not quite as sad as I make out on the record.”
Laptop’s sound combines the attitude of ‘the blank generation’ with synth pop’s minimalism and a morass of electronic samples from sources as diverse as airport tannoys and answering machines, a result influenced in part by Jesse’s film school education and time spent as an award winning independent film maker no less.
“It sounds pretentious when I say this, but really my stuff is the music of a frustrated director. I suppose my despair for American radio is the other main influence; seriously, there is way too much stuff like Hootie and the Blowfish out there,” he laments. “With Laptop what I wanted to do was something damn different from my former guitar rock training. Something more like Eno or Talking Heads, even though I didn’t understand the technology, which was a problem at first.”
“The album has taken such a long time to complete as I have had to do all the parts myself. Mark Saunders came in and helped with some stuff. If it wasn’t for him I’d still be sealed away in the recording studio now,” he concludes.
Overall, Jesse is a bit of a clever sod, but by all accounts his memories of Terry Christian and The Word shall forever remain a humbling experience. “When we went on we were there with that guy who had his dick cut off and Ricki Lake. I remember playing our music and all these girls in bikinis stood around in the crowd staring at us. As for Terry Christian, well putting it diplomatically, he was as you’d expect.”
And who says Americans don’t have taste?
Nothing to Declare is out now. Whole Wide World is released later this year.
On Band 2: Laptop
By Simon Williams
<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>
People have all the luck. As a 20 year-old musical whippersnapper, one Jesse
Hartman, aka Laptop, went on tour with none other than rock
type/novelist/all-round shady American dud Richard Hell. The experience was
unforgettable, to say the least.
“He taught me a lot about reinvention,” explains Jesse. “He had this whole philosophy about changing your name, changing your religion, changing your personality, and I guess it kinda affected me.”
It certainly bally well did. Last year, Jesse was in a band called Sammy; post-Pavement surfers to a man, their plans for global domination were only slightly scuppered by the fact that while Jesse resides in New York, his partner, Luke, was an inhabitant of Los Angeles.
“We loved doing it, but it was high time that I had people around that I could work with without having to e-mail them. It’s very hard to write a song by fax. And even harder to rehearse. Ha ha!
“I was also getting a bit tired of doing the jangly guitar lo-fi pop thing,” he continues, complicatedly. “Plus, my voice dropped about 12 notes on the scale for whatever reason. Too much drinking and smoking, I guess. One morning I just woke up with an arch crooner’s voice.”
He did, as well. And Jesse has put said croon to fantastically good use on ‘End Credits’. Laptop’s grand debut single. A luscious slice of pop melodrama pie (and a spiritual cousin of the wondrous ‘Found A Little Baby’ by Plush, to boot), it has sent drooling British DJ’s in a right old spin. A jangly guitar lo-fi pop thing it most certainly isn’t.
“I was kinda scared,” admits Jesse on the transatlantic phoneline, “because it’s definitely a new sound for me. It’s something I grew up listening to and it kinda seeped in I guess, and came out 16 years later or something.”
Uh-huh. What about the reference points, Jesse? Experts claim they hear traces of Bowie in your soothsome sounds.
“People offer all kinds of stuff. Half of it I’ve never heard of, a quarter of it I hated and the last 25 per cent I can kinda identify with. Someone said it was like Soft Cell and I didn’t know how to take that – I was stunned and confused!”
Not as much as us, obviously, but that’s not the point. The point is that “End Credits” is a sneakily romantic blighter, a tattered red rose for lovers past, and the best single of ’98 released at the close of ’97. So all Jesse needs right now is a big proper deal.
“It would be nice to have backing so I can eat again,” he muses. “I had to cancel my tennis appointment for this actually.” Laptop? Tennis? “My English record company called me a yuppie this morning. And then I had to explain that I played tennis in an abandoned chemical factory so I could get some cred back from them.”
Mmmm! Sulphur-tastic! And when can we expect the next chemically-crazed reinvention, Jesse?
“Oh, I think this has got a few years in it. Unless I hate the name and decide to change it. Ha ha!
Famous Edition: Laptop
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes! Jesse Hartman, 30 year old brainiac behind the sardonic , brand new retro pop of Laptop, knows a thing or two about the power of reinvention, as the title of his latest album – ‘The Old Me vs. The New You’ – might suggest. Having reached a creative impasse with fellow members of erstwhile project, mid ‘90’s Pavement-alikes Sammy. Hartman had to break up the band in search of something new. “Metamorphosing into Laptop after Sammy was a genius move on my behalf,” he confesses with a wry smile. “I’d been a ‘Rock Rules, Disco Sucks’ kind of kid. Suddenly it was liberating to fool around with instruments that had previously been taboo to me and I ended up sounding like a lot of the stuff I’d hated when I was growing up.” Indeed much like Laptop’s first long playing effort (last year’s criminally underexposed ‘Opening Credits’), ‘The Old Me vs. The New You’ is distinguished by the prevalence of new wavey guitar riffs and early eighties-inspired electronica. But where once any critical citation of that decade was accompanied by a sneer, from TV nostalgia series to style mag fashion spreads, it now seems we can’t get enough of the era. Surely it must be irksome to witness such a blatantly shallow about face? “I suppose I did anticipate some kind of eightees revival when Laptop began,” he sighs. “It’s only the in the last year that people like Madonna have got a hold on it. I mean that’s the ultimate irony, right? That Madonna, who was once part of it, has now taken to reviving it.”
Any thoughts of Laptop as wacky kitsch revivalists though, should be dispensed with immediately, as can the idea of them as noodling electro-purists. This is pop music at its bitter and twisted best. Arguably, Laptop’s greatest appeal is Hartman’s skewed lyricism. The new album’s very title is evocative of Sparks flying (that’s Ron and Russ , by the way) in a showdown between Bowie and and Morrissey. And just like the aforementioned luminaries at their best ‘The Old Me’…possesses an immense humour along with vicious sarcasm that treads a wonderous path between the absurdly self-deprecating and the flagrantly egotistical. Take the deliciously comic confection ‘Back Together’- the vain plea of a reluctantly remorseful ex-lover eager to rebuild the bridges he’s burned: “I couldn’t find anything better/So I’m crawling back to say/I think it might be time to get back together” or ‘Can’t Say Hi’ in which Hartman dourly refuses to acknowledge a casual, but common acquaintance: “It don’t matter, we’re not gonna meet/’Cos when I saw you coming, I just crossed the street” – you’re left laughing and wondering how Hartman ever manages to cross that street with the number of crosses he seems to bear. “I do get myself into some pretty sticky personal situations. I call them merger problems.” He laments. “Whatever the subject though, I feel this compulsion to be funny in the lyrics. Maybe I was a stand-up comic in a past life, ‘cos when I play my music to people and they’re not laughing then I think there’s something wrong with what I’ve done.”
The genius of Jesse Hartman. Funny ha ha. Funny peculiar.
Laptop’s new album ‘The Old Me vs. The New You’ is released June on Trust Me Records.
Sky Magazine (UK)
Laptop: Get With The Program
revolving restaurant at the Marriot, Times Square, New York, Sixty stories up,
Jesse Hartman is introducing Sky to Laptop, his acid tongued synth pop war
against the shallowness of the city below. He sips a frozen margarita. “This
whole place is so Laptop,” he explains in his dry boho tones. “It’s like we’re
poking fun at the city, yet carrying on like we’re both absurdly stylish.” He
laughs a dismissive laugh. With his dyed cherry-hair and light red synthetic
shirt, Jesse is a man at odds with pretty much everyone. From debut tune End
Credits to harky forthcoming single, I’m So Happy You Failed, in which he mocks
fellow New York artists over a grimy robot beat (“Everybody says your second
record’s dead and you’re not doing very well”), Hartman has already written a
bunch of hilariously miserable synth pop songs set around the poncey
back-biting world of the East Village. Sounding like a depressed Divine Comedy
with a pinch of 80s Smiths and Soft Cell, Hartman is far removed from the
current crop of spikey-haired MTV punk-lites (“It’s exciting being out on a
limb like that.”) Forthcoming album Guilt is intended to be a lesson for
misguided youth. “Some of it sounds like Human League and some like 80s
Stones,” he says. “I’m not sure the public are going to get it, but I’m just
reveling in the fact that none of it makes sense.” He pauses. “That’s going to
be your closing quote, isn’t it?” Yep. I’m So Happy You Failed is released
on 20 September.
July 22 2001
By Tony Fletcher
<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>
the review I posted back in March made abundantly clear, I consider Laptop's
debut album Opening Credits no small a work of genius. (You can read the review
here.) Jesse Hartman's acerbic lyrics suggest a man of considerable literary
merit and sharp wit, and given his subject matter (failed relationships) and
career trajectory (failed major label deals), he seemed an ideal candidate for
an iJamming! interview. Instinct led me to make it an e-mail Q&A; I thought
he might enjoy my occasionally biting and not infrequently sarcastic questions
a little more if he had a chance to compose replies as per lyrics, rather than
being forced to deliver them off the cuff. Hartman proved a good sport, and
responded with an essay's worth of responses within a week or two.
of sport, during the very week of posting this interview (mid-June 2001)
Hartman celebrated the UK release of his second album, The Old Me Vs. The New
You, by performing in London in full boxing regalia. (Images of the Monty
Python sketch in which Graham Chapman boxed against himself immediately pop
into the head.) I've yet to hear much of this album and don't feel the need to
post a review so rapidly on the heels of Opening Credits. In fact, while I
understand Hartman's desire to press on with his career after the years lost to
the Universal-Seagrams merger, I would hate to see Opening Credits passed over.
Neither would he, which is one reason The Old Me Vs. The New You is not
released in the U.S. until August. Laptop links follow at the end; if ever
there's an artist who merits an internet following, it's this post-modern,
computer-savvy master of what he himself contentedly calls "ironica."
are you today, Jesse?
5:00am -- I was awoken by two of my apartment building neighbors having a loud discussion. I told them to shut up and now they think it was me who called the police last night to complain about a domestic squabble they were having. (The man is quite large and tattooed.)
-- While driving my dirty little Honda from Brooklyn to the East Village, I
flipped on shock jock Howard Stern (like not being able to avert your eyes from
a car wreck) and had to endure an interview with a rock star who I know
personally and dislike heavily. Quote: "Nobody understands that music is
my life, man. You know, the band is my family."
-- A friend called me and told me Lou Reed died which turned out later to be
just an internet hoax.
I ask because at least one magazine that listened to Opening Credits concluded that you must be a "miserable bastard." Well, are you?
Not as much as I should be given some of the material. A few more days like this one and I'll get there.
Are Laptop and Jesse Hartman one and the same character, or is Laptop merely your alter ego? If so, does that make you any more easy going in person than you are in song?
On a scale from 1-10, is Jesse as ________ as he is in Laptop songs?
Paranoid - 10
Funny - 8 (how can he be?)
Mean - 5
Romantic - 0 (I'm more so in person)
Competitive - 0
Well-adjusted - 3 (I'm more so in person)
You grew up around the New York rock'n'roll scene, I gather. Do you recall your first gig? How old were you? Did it make you want to become a rock'n'roll star?
Pet Clams From Outer Space at CBGB's in 1978. I was 6 and my older sister thought I should see the inside of that famous club. Made me want to hold my ears more than be a rock star. Seeing the Talking Head's Remain In Light tour a couple years later made me want to be rock star.
You toured with Richard Hell at a very young age? How old were you then? Did THAT make you want to become a rock'n'roll star?
I was 19 or 20 when I went to Japan as the guitarist on a punk rock Spinal Tap-esque Richard Hell tour. THAT made me want to sell all my gear (which I did upon return), swear off rock stardom (Richard told me repeatedly that the rock biz is a "world of pain" - he was right), and become a filmmaker.
You've performed with many other musicians and several bands. What's the closest you've ever come to being a rock'n'roll star?
I am a rock 'n' roll star.
Your last real band, Sammy, released an album on Geffen, back when that label could do no wrong. How comes you didn't sell a million?
I beg to differ with the "do no wrong" bit. Geffen was on a serious losing streak in the post-Nirvana era which was strangely one of the reasons we signed with them. We figured they NEEDED to break a band and therefore might pay attention to us more than they would have during the Guns 'N' Roses era for example. Geffen actually got folded into Interscope not long after we left the label which would have been a disaster for us as it has been for bands like Girls Against Boys.
So after Sammy broke up, you developed an alternative career as a film-maker. How cool is that?
Actually, I started making films at age 21 at Wesleyan University before Sammy even started. My first film was a short about my experiences as a bartender that won Best Short Film in Berlin 1993. A feature followed that I co-wrote the story for and co-produced called "River Of Grass" which was a Sundance hit back in 1995. There's been many other since (as many as I can do while keeping up musical appearances).
What's the greatest thing you've ever done with a camera?
I once filmed a heartbreaking portrait (of staggering genius) of my good friend Slimma Williams (poet, Two Boots dishwasher, self-titled "mutant from outer space") for MSNBC. There's a sad song about him on Sammy's Tales Of Great Neck Glory called "Slim Style".
If you had to choose between making films and making music, which would it be?
I can't decide. That's my fatal flaw. At least Laptop is "cinematic" enough to satisfy both impulses.
You used film metaphors in 'End Credits,' the song that introduced Laptop to the world. What do they call that: multi-tasking? Cross-platforming? What do YOU call it?
I call it being a frustrated filmmaker.
Was your re-entry into the music world as Laptop a calculated endeavor or a happy accident? (Please elaborate.)
Both. After Sammy broke-up, I knew I wanted to continue making music. I knew I needed to basically go at it alone. I knew it had to be something completely different...I wanted to explore artifice and a kind of musical theater of the absurd, get away from the guitar rock I had grown up with, be mean and honest, be funny, use samples, include cinematic elements...I knew I never wanted to be lumped in with bands like Pavement. I knew I didn't want it to be a band....I think Laptop accomplished all that -- accidentally/consciously.
Laptop appears to have been launched from the UK. How comes? Weren't you living in New York all this time?
Yes, it definitely appears that way. Much like Les Rhythm Digitales appeared to launch from France. In Laptop's case, this appearance is due to a number of factors:
--Sammy had always done well in the UK. There was immediate interest in what I was doing in London.
--A dude with "smart ears" in London named Dave Barker wanted to (exclusively) put out the "End Credits" single.
--I didn't see any point in releasing anything in America til there was something going on in London (a la Nirvana, Pretenders, Hendrix, and countless others that used London as a shop window for their material)...In my opinion, American indies have little power these days, American radio is a joke and the place is just too fucking big to make an impact without a lot of $. London is just the opposite. That first single got on BBC 1 with no plugger, no $, no manager, nothing. That's what I love about London. They'll take a chance on anything.
--Laptop was just too weird for America in 1998. Maybe/hopefully not now.
--My music sounds British so why not let people think it is?
You then had the fun of being released by an American major label again (MCA I believe). How great was that?
Well, after a few singles got that unexpected airplay on English national radio, I fatefully signed with Island Records. Which was bought by Universal (practically the next day) and I suddenly found myself back on a Uni company in the States (I had already been on Geffen with Sammy). I was devastated as they are truly the evil empire but they assured me with expensive lunches that they loved, got, lurved, whatever else Laptop. I even got a Christmas gift from the President of MCA with a note: Look forward to breaking Laptop huge in 2000. He was right. They did break Laptop: my momentum, my sanity, my desire to be on a major ever again.
On Laptop's introductory EP User's Guide you gave us 'I'm Happy You Failed,' the most spiteful anthem written about a fellow musician since John Lennon dissed Paul McCartney on 'How Do You Sleep.' Come on, which band is about?
Now that I think about it -- it was probably about the President I was just discussing. Or maybe it was my manager or my ex or The Strokes in advance of their existence.
How often are you asked that question? Do other bands accost you in New York clubs and demand to know if it's about them?
Girls Against Boys threw a drink in my face.
In fact, do other bands in New York even talk to you?
I usually cross the street if I see any.
So anyway, the User's Guide Ep came out on a major label as a taster of an album that was never released. What happened? Were you dropped?
I don't know if dropped is the right word. Island UK was basically dissolved in the merger. I think they moved some band called U2 (apparently they make the label a lot of money) over to Universal and that was it. They stuck my record on a shelf, refusing to let me put out the record elsewhere. That was nice of them. After 200 angry phone calls, from me and my radio DJ friend in Norway, Marit Karlsen, they finally decided they'd let us put it out ourselves (Uni keeps all the profits -- nice!) so we'd stop annoying them.
'I'm So Happy You Failed' includes the line "I'm setting myself up for the same song to be sung back to me." Did you allow yourself a wry smile at that line when you departed the major label before even releasing an album?
Guess I'm psychic.
Did other New York bands start accosting you in clubs and singing the song back to you?
No, because every New York band knows the meaning of "failure" (a musician's ups and downs) as much as I do -- see Helmet, Girls Vs. Boys, The Strokes (soon enough), D Generation... Besides Sonic Youth (barely) name a band from New York that's had an easy go of it since Madonna in the early 80's.
Finally, you've come out with your debut album, Opening Credits. It's been very well received - as it should be. It's superb. Does it feel worth the wait?
Sure. It's kind of fun to be starting a new band at my ripe old age. Now, I'm like the wizened "long-in-the-tooth" pub rockers from the Stiff era: Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury. I'm a fucking rock 'n' roll veteran and it's all because I've been in legal battles with my record label the last two years!
The album has been released across the globe on Trustmerecords, a Norwegian record label. I'm confused. Norway? Can you explain.
Kind of explained already above. I wanted my label to be located about as far away from me as possible. I'm looking into a label in Saipan for my 4th album.
Opening Credits seems to have done particularly well in the UK. Why? Do they see something special in you that Americans don't notice?
I guess, to them, I'm a bit of an exotic character. Plus, they get the 'ironica' threads through Laptop's songs more than Americans do. When I play in London, people laugh between lines like I'm doing stand-up or something. Jonathan Richman would be proud.
You've even toured the UK, but you don't seem to play your home city. Why? Are you worried that New York bands will accost you in the clubs and demand to know if 'I'm SO Happy You Failed' is about them?
I'm more afraid of ex-girlfriends hurling tomatoes.
Many of the reviews of your music call you an 80s revivalist. Is that fair?
Ah, the press. What can I say except that they seem to need a tag line for every band. Sure there are references in my music-- tons, actually (I dare say, like a musical Goddard). But are they all 80's? These writers ought to take a listen to some 70's Eno, some 60's Stax, some 90's...well, maybe not the 90's.
What do the 80s mean to you then?
It means a lot of music I kind of hated at the time but love now.
What does the 21st century mean to you (so far)?
Of all the descriptions afforded you, which is your favorite, or perhaps the most appropriate? I like the one that compares you to "Gary Numan alone with a bottle of vodka."
There are two. "Laptop is Leonard Cohen remixed by Devo" and "Hartman is like a Japanese robotic young Mick Jagger mixed with a computer literate Woody Allen".
Most of the album Opening Credits concerns your apparently unsuccessful love life. What I want to know is, are the songs all about one particular girl or is this a whole series of failures you're writing about?
A whole series. At least 50. Should have been a triple album.
Have you thought of trying therapy?
I tried it for years. Then I went to Jim Jarmusch's therapist who hypnotized me...Now, I'm cured! The third album is tentatively entitled Accentuate The Positive.
Even if you've managed to keep the rival band in 'I'm So Happy You Failed' a secret, the girls you address in songs like 'End Credits' and 'The Reason' must know who they are. Have they sent you hate mail yet? Or better still, have they left messages on your answering machine that you can sample for future songs?
You want to know the truth? And you might find this bizarre, but they are actually flattered when they appear in these songs.
You have a song called 'The Wedding Band.' There was an 80s revival movie called The Wedding Singer. Are they related?
Yes. Radio DJ Steve Lamacq wrote in the British press that I should have starred in that movie instead of Adam Sandler. That thought (and an ex trying to hire me as her wedding band) inspired the song.
Are you living proof that great art only comes out of misery?
As Woody writes in Crimes and Misdemeanors, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." That's my mantra for making art.
The girls in your songs tend to be real basket cases, or at least 'Bad News,' as you call them. Doesn't that reflect as badly on your choice of partner as on the girls in question?
More like extremely intelligent, artistic and interesting with difficult pasts. Sometimes that combination produces bouts of basket case-icity.
Have you thought of trying Prozac?
Don't think depression's my problem. Anxiety maybe. I've tried Buspar and plenty of non-pharmaceuticals.
Trustmerecords has announced release dates not just for your second album The Old Me versus the New You but your third one Accentuate the Positive as well. Is this in reaction to the perpetual 'tba's of major labels?
Trustme Records and I like having the control to make plans ahead of time. We don't need to see if my next single charts before scheduling the releases (like majors do). That's the whole point here.
Are both these albums "in the can," as they say in the music biz?
Old Me is...It's out in June in the UK and out here in the fall 2001. Accentuate will be recorded this summer in NYC.
How do they differ from Opening Credits?
It's interesting. Opening Credits and The Old Me Vs. The New You almost parallel each other -- like two concept albums make by the same artist living on two similar but different planets. Shit, that sounds like Star Trek...Here's a comparison track by track:
1. 'End Credits' - about closure /The New You - about rebirth and reinvention
2. 'Greatest Hits' - about a guy pissing off a girl, she leaves him/Back Together - about a guy wanting to repair things with a girl
3. 'I'm So Happy You Failed' - about hatred/I Can't Say Hi - about hatred
4. 'Nothing To Declare' - coming home from world travels hopelessly/Whole Wide World - wanting to travel the world hopefully
5. 'Another Song' - guy hurt by girl/Not The Right Time - guy hurts girl
6. 'Bad News' - love patterns/Generational Pattern - family patterns
7. 'A Little Guilt' - guilt about one-night stands/Gimme The Nite - one night stands And so on...
Could you be happy being happy?
Gotta be...my third album's supposed to be about that. Fat chance though - is what I'm thinking.
If there's one couplet you wrote that you could take on a desert island with you, what would it be?
From "Fountain Of Youth"...'cause it's a song sung to explorer Ponce de Leon as he leaves me ashore in his ship - seems appropriate for a desert island... "Do you have an idea what a plastic surgeon costs these days? Do you know what pain that is is to exercise? Ponce de Leon, please don't say no. Take me with you I could use that Fountain Of Youth."
If there's one that you could Command-z on your laptop (assuming it's a Mac), what would it be?
Something I could "undo"? Not a lyric. Maybe a couple of select moments, years, friendships...
So far you've covered Wreckless Eric's 'Whole Wide World' and Billy Joel's 'It's Still rock'n'roll to Me,' two extremely diverse songs. What's the next gem you're going to dig up from the great treasure trove of rock and polish for us?
Two candidates out of many: Richard Hell's 'Time' & Ben E. King's 'Supernatural Thing (Part 1)'
Finally, have you thought of trying stand-up comedy?
I think I've been trying it for years.
The experimental top band
By Carl Hopper
It's the night before the interview and everything is as it should be. Jesse Hartman, aka Laptop, is stood in front of a giant projection of a computer monitor at Notting Hill Arts Club. In front of him his fans crowd with the kind of warm glow that comes from knowing exactly what to expect. The tunes will sound like Gary Numan covering Lou Reed, the lyrics will splice Woody Allen humour with Morrissey self-obsession and the jokes are always served up utterly, fantastically dry.
"This song is dedicated to The Strokes in two years time", he'll deadpan, before, inevitably, launching into the exquisitely cruel and true, 'I'm So Happy You Failed'. The fact that we knew what was coming doesn't make it any less funny.
After only two albums Laptop's already become an institution and, while he can still press the right buttons, a small but select crowd of us will always be there to sing along. It seems, though, that the New Yorker is starting to crave something more than that.
"It's getting so they (the audience) enjoy it but maybe I don't so much anymore," he says the next day. "I'm bored with playing with Moogs - I'm bored with the constraints of the laptop."
Does that mean you're bored with being Laptop?
"No. I'm just getting fed up of having to rely on HAL," he laughs. "In the end it'll just send a hologram up on-stage and I won't even have to be there! I don't want to stop being Laptop - I just want Laptop to be a little less literal."
Things are going full circle. When Jesse first appeared on the scene it was as part of Sammy - a "real" band with "real" instruments and a loathing of the computerized world he'd later embrace. Then with Laptop's debut album 'Opening Credits' he gave us what one magazine described as a "user's guide to being in your twenties". Now with new album 'The Old Me Vs. The New You' things are just as tuneful, just as funny, but that bit darker, that bit more serious. Now he's talking about going back to playing with a band. So can we expect rock anthems like U2 or something next time?
"Yes," he answers, alarmingly, only half-joking. "Some of them are kind of emo in that way. Some of them are quite sad. I've called the next album 'Accentuate The Positive' but that's starting to seem more and more like a joke in itself. Maybe I'm worn out on the straight comedy."
Have you achieved the kind of success you expected?
"Being an American artist releasing albums in the UK is the ultimate rollercoaster," he laughs. "Just when you've decided that you don't care about being famous and all that junk you get press like, 'this is the single that's going to break Hartman's career!' and it's hard not to get caught up in it."
And that kind of hype is happening to The Strokes now. What have you got against them?
"Ha! A friend e-mailed me their first single and said 'this is the hot new thing in England' and whenever I hear that something's the hot new thing in England my first feeling is 'uh, give me a f***ing break'," he sighs melodramatically. "This is going to disappear in a second. They'll be on the cover of NME and then everyone will forget about it. I've been there! It's the most shameless Velvet Underground rip-off that I've ever heard. It just blew my mind that this is the next big thing. And," he grins wickedly. "I think it's funny to start a war-of-words New York battle of the bands. I just wanted to get the ball rolling."
We love all that kind of thing over here.
"I figured that," he smiles to himself. Not quite ready to turn into Bono just yet, then.
Laptop's new album 'The Old Me Vs. The New You' is out now on Trust Me Records.
SPITTINGGLASS STARS (Fanzine)
Who are you and what do you want?
Jesse Hartman from Laptop and...I want to get some dinner cause I'm hungry
I want to smash the windows of a van that's parked on my East Village street that happens to be owned by a guy that's suing me (America). I want to change everything about what is on the radio at present.
What's the plan?
To change everything about what is on the radio at present with Laptop.
Is it working?
No. Well, a little. Tough task. Slow burn. Eventually it will.
Are we required to take any precautions?
Yes, each Laptop track is as vicious (comedically vicious) as the next. They can cut you like a flower, as Lou Reed once sung.
If you were given the opportunity to write a 15,000 word critique of any individual which would be a permanent fixture of all nations' school curriculum who would it be about and what would the conclusion be?
Myself (I'm quite self-centered). Don't know what the conclusion will be. Tell you from the after-life.
How do you know when a song is as good as its going to get?
When the engineer refuses to continue or threatens to start charging overtime. I keep going unless someone makes me stop. Big problem.
What makes you mutter at its memory?
World War II.
What's on your hi-fi?
"The Old Me vs. The New You," the next Laptop album, which was just completed and mastered.
How far do you trust computers?
I trust them all except for Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Would you rather burn all synthesizers or all guitars?
All cymbals, but if I had to choose between those two, guitars.
How did the recent UK tour go?
Wonderfully, it was the first time I drove on the left side of the road and I loved it! I've tried in New York a few times but it wasn't as fun.
If it was necessary for you to set up your own charity what would the cause be?
What's the main cause of arguments for you?
Incompetence in others.
What, apart from songs, are important in good music?
Looks, clothes, attitude, timing, a great manager (impossible to find), money...all unfortunately.
What bands should the world be taking more notice of?
Radiohead...just kidding. They seem to be getting plenty of attention.
Please complete this sentence. Laptop is good because.....
it makes me and lots of other people laugh.
Is there anything else we need to know?