Pop Culture

Joe Jackson still ‘Steppin’ Out’ to his own beat

Joe Jackson has crafted a long and prosperous career with his unique brand of jazzy, world-beat, reggae-and-ska-infused piano-driven pop, and he’s just released his 23rd album, “Rain.” Jackson also is a prolific writer and activist who penned a memoir and a 20-page essay decrying government smoking bans.

The man who charged onto the American charts with the radio hits “Is She Really Going Out With Him?,” “Steppin’ Out” and “Breaking Us in Two” has been living in Berlin, where “Rain” was recorded, and has a world tour for the album beginning in late February in Cardiff, Wales. Six Questions caught up with him on the phone recently to talk shop.

Doug Miller: You haven’t come out with an album in four years, which marks the longest stretch between projects for you in a long time. What happened?

Joe Jackson: It doesn’t seem like four years. People are pointing it out and I’m like, “Wow. I can’t believe it.” I guess I was just busy during that time. I did three tours, I worked on some other projects, and I wasn’t in any great hurry. I think I made too many records in the past. If I’d done less, maybe it would have been better. I think I was a workaholic and I’m just not anymore.

With any artist, you have only your own taste to go on. Good taste is an underrated element as an artist. And with age and experience, I have better taste and more objectivity. I can’t say I’m my toughest critic, because I’ve had a few tough ones over the years. But I’m much more inclined to scratch things if I don’t think they’re good enough. The quantity’s gone down but the quality’s gone up. I’m writing better than I ever have, certainly writing the best lyrics I’ve ever written. It took me a long time, but I’m doing it.

Miller: You wrote a long essay (“Smoke, Lies and the Nanny State,” available here) describing why government smoking bans are wrong. Does that mean you’re bummed out when you play smoke-free venues?

Jackson: Well, I’m not going to be smoking through a show, if that’s what you’re asking. Look, I could go on for an hour on this subject, so what I would recommend is that you read the essay. Basically, it doesn’t bother me if a venue decides, with the freedom they have themselves, that they’re going to ban smoking. If there’s somewhere around the corner that allows smoking, I’ll go there. What I am saying is that there should be a free market. There are many solutions that can be worked out for matters of taste, but not by government legislation.

It all comes down to so-called “second-hand smoke,” and you’ve either looked into the real evidence or you haven’t. There’s no way any intelligent person, if you look at the way the studies are done, would find any proof at all of any harm done as a result of tobacco smoke in the air. There’s not one proven case. I promise you! But don’t take my word for it. Check out the evidence. In debates with these smoking people, I’m always asking, “Can you name one case?” And they change the subject. They can’t do it.

It takes a little bit of explaining, my point of view on this. You have those out there saying, “Second-hand smoke kills and I know. I’m the surgeon general.” And it’s complete B.S. With a good ventilation system, you can make it so smoke is barely noticeable. And if that’s not good enough, you have separate rooms. They say everyone hates smoke, so we have to ban it by law. But if everyone doesn’t want smoking, the free market will bear that out. Again, this is a lot better explained in my essay. I’ve put five years of research into it, and I’ll ask people, “How much have you done?” Most people haven’t looked into it for five minutes, and a lot of them are the doctors.

Miller: Is it tough for you to hear that you’re a big influence on artists these days?

Jackson: (Laughs) Hmmm. I don’t know about that. I mean, I’ve heard that about Ben Folds. He’s said I was a huge influence on him. And I know Ben Folds quite well, and to be honest, I don’t really hear it when I listen to him. But then again, Ben says people keep comparing him to Billy Joel and he can’t understand why. I guess it’s just because we all play the piano. It’s not that I don’t believe you when you tell me that, I just don’t know. I guess I should be flattered. But I never know how to answer questions like that.

Another thing I’ve always heard, the sort of standard thing people say about me, is that I’ve changed styles over and over again. After all these years, that strikes me. I wonder, “Are you taking about me?” Because I haven’t done that at all. My first album (1979’s “Look Sharp!”), if you pull it apart, it’s a mixture of punk, funk, reggae, jazz and R&B and I don’t know what else. I’ve always been eclectic.

Miller: OK, so what is influencing you these days? Or, if you don’t like that term, what are you listening to?

Jackson: I’ve been rediscovering a lot of jazz that I haven’t listened to for a long time, pretty much all on the Blue Note label. They’ve been re-releasing direct two-track live recordings by Rudy Van Gelder and they’re fantastic. Stuff like Art Blakey and Horace Silver. But I listen to new pop stuff, too. I like the Hives’ new album, the Kaiser Chiefs’ latest album, plus a lot of eastern European and Balkan music as well, which is popular in Berlin, where I’ve been spending a lot of my time lately. There’s a record label here, Eastern Bloc, and they have something called “Berlin Beats” that’s very fresh to my ears. The Eastern European influence of gypsy music is something I find very interesting. There’s something really vital in their music.

Miller: You did a cover of Pulp’s “Common People” with William Shatner on one of his albums (2004’s “Has Been”). Is Shatner underappreciated musically?

Jackson: (Laughs). No. I can’t say that. But I think that the song and the album are really good. It’s fun and musical in a clever kind of way, and it’s fun to listen to. It’s very much tongue-in-cheek, but you know Shatner’s in on the joke. On the same album, Shatner and Henry Rollins do a song (“I Can’t Get Behind That”) where they’re both just ranting and raving. It’s brilliant. You’ve gotta check it out. I mean, humor is such an important part of being a human being, so why shouldn’t it be a part of being an artist? I’m frankly surprised by how little humor there is in rock ’n’ roll these days. People take themselves very seriously. And even when they don’t, the critics do.

Miller: So how did you feel when you first saw the Taco Bell commercial that has your song (“One More Time”) on it?

Jackson: I was shocked. I mean, I wasn’t actually shocked, because obviously I gave permission for it, but my feeling is, at this point, why not? What the hell. It’s my song, and they didn’t change it or anything. Maybe it reminds people that I still exist, plus I get paid for it. After all, I have to think about my retirement! (Laughs) No. I don’t suppose I’ll ever retire, but at this point it’s very difficult for me to get on MTV or get radio airplay. As for Taco Bell, I would never go on TV and promote some product I think is crap, but no one assumes that. But I don’t think people think Joe Jackson eat Taco Bell. I don’t even think it exists outside of the States. I’ve never seen one, anyway.