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JerkcurbPhotography Harry Brafman

Jerkcurb’s songwriting evokes a surreal Americana that never existed

South London artist Jacob Read invites us into a nocturnal world of empty shopping malls and neon-lit forecourts on his debut album Air Con Eden

Jerkcurb, the alias of polymath musician, illustrator, and animator Jacob Read, has temporarily put our interview on pause to pull up a clip from the 1944 film, Jam Session. He excitedly tears around his Brockley flat, looking for an aux cord, insisting that I have to watch it. “It’s fucking mad.”

On first appearances, the scene in question looks like any other Hollywood studio movie from this era – that is, until ‘Stringy’, an anthropomorphic robot-guitar with a face frozen in a rictus grin, starts singing a mournful tune. Stringy is a mechanical puppet, his modulated ‘voice’ played live by Alvino Rey, the great band leader and inventor (and later grandfather to Arcade Fire’s Win and Will Butler), via an ingeniously modified electric steel guitar. The clip has a magical quality viewed in the present. Not only is the ventriloquist feat of the trick still impressive today, but it’s just so incongruously futuristic in context that you can’t help but feel some exhilarating sense of the vicarious wonder that an audience member in 1944 might have felt suddenly confronted with a talking electric guitar. It is fucking mad.

The clip’s beguiling charm is tinged with a haunting strangeness. It’s simultaneously familiar to our inherited nostalgia, and yet entirely discordant with it. Jacob Read collects lost cultural ephemera of the last century likes this with the fervour of an Indiana Jones. As soon as he’s shown you Alvino Rey, he’s urgently rooting through drawers, under his bed, and across YouTube for the next recovered treasure you need to see. There’s 50s musician Pete Drake and his Lynchian talking guitar; Looney Tunes composer Raymond Scott’s forays into synthesisers and early electronic music; Gary Panter’s seminal Jimbo comicsanthologies on Tiki-Pop; and a miscellany of postcards from an America that no longer exists, if it ever did in the first place. More than archiving these things, Read channels their spirit, rescues them from their anachronistic timelines and pulls them into the 21st century, filtered and warped through his own reimaginations. The result is Jerkcurb, every bit as thrillingly retrofuturist as anything he’s unearthed.

Over the last decade, the Jerkcurb alternate-reality, existing somewhere between the now, the past, and the never, has been slowly oozing out of Read’s mind and onto the internet via self-produced music and artwork. The forthcoming release of his long-anticipated debut album, Air Con Edenon Handsome Dad Records, provides a deeper delve into his intoxicating dreamworld, a bricolage of his hyper-specific obsessions. It’s a universe of broken-hearted balladeers, louche deadbeats, cowboys, gangsters, girls-next-door, and Marilyn Monroes, all huddled together in diners and sleazy dives, merrily smoking their lungs dry. It’s Thomas Pynchon Americana, only now replete with a trove of salvaged artefacts that the pop culture canon forgot, or else deliberately left behind.

Read’s artwork, meanwhile, depicts nocturnal scenes bereft of moonlight, illuminated instead by artificial chiaroscuro, shimmering discoballs over empty dancefloors, luminescence leaking out across shopping mall forecourts, inviting neon signs that pass by movie drunks in binge montages. It’s a bygone era, reimagined by someone several lifetimes too young to have been there, based on the hazy recollections and probable exaggerations of those who were, bathed in disquieting shadow that seems to have descended over time. “I think about this all the time,” Read tells me. “Why do I find stuff interesting if it’s from so far before I’m alive?”

“This post-war idealism, it’s something I find fascinating, because we now live in a cynical, yet arguably a lot more honest world” – Jerkcurb

Encounters with the uncanny and the familiar-yet-unfamiliar is a feeling Jerkcurb’s music taps into. Take the single, “Night On Earth”. The song’s lilting melodies and plaintive lyrics recall the tender swing ballads of saccharine 50s crooners, those whose appeal lay in the gentle hint of something altogether darker and lonelier lingering beneath the schmaltzy surface. Jerkcurb turns this equation on its head, thrusting the hidden macabre into the limelight. Generous lashings of reverb are ladled over sultry Santo & Johnny slide guitar tones, where they become menacing and spectral, as though obscured beneath a film of cigarette smoke. A rhapsodic end refrain turns declarations of love – “I chose you!” – into desperate, frenzied, forsaken howl. It’s tauntingly romantic, music that seeps out of jukeboxes in Nighthawks bars where jaded and jilted noir detectives go to drink themselves into damned oblivions.

It’s an odd lineage for a London-born twentysomething to resurrect. Or is it? Read’s parents, both artists themselves, met and originally lived in America before returning to his dad’s native United Kingdom when Read was born. “A lot of their memories, friends, and experiences stayed out in the States,” he says. “I grew up with a sort of infatuation with the stories told by relatives.” On family vacations Stateside, they’d fill his head with all sorts of gripping yarns and fantastical depictions of everyday life in the US. It’s something he admits gave him a distorted perception of America, viewed longingly from afar, experienced only in short, exciting bursts of weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, parties, and showers of affection. “That’s not what America is like!” he says. “America is such a fucked up, weird place.”

Still, this is a perspective that can only be gleaned in later life, too late to stop the febrile dreams of different worlds that seem to exist on the other side of the Atlantic crystallising themselves. This, Read says, sparked a “fascination with art as escapism, as a transportation device”. Despite plenty of side passion project teenage bands, it wasn’t something he originally envisaged leading to a career. “Way before music, I was into drawing,” he notes. Despite attending BRIT School at a similar time to childhood friend and neighbour Archy ‘King Krule’ Marshall (albeit a few years above, and studying media as opposed to music), Read enrolled in an animation course at Kingston University, which would prove, in a roundabout way, formative to Jerkcurb. He couldn’t find anyone to form a band like the ones back home, only a love for emo and “Wombats indie”, neither of which held any charms. “So I was like, I’ll just do my own shit at home. Bedroom stuff.”

Read attributes cinema providing a more formative influence over his sound. He recalls, with semi-embarrassment, being into “wet blanket” films – Donnie Darko, American Beauty, and the like – as well as healthy doses of David Lynch surrealism. “That’s kind of the roots of Jerkcurb, I guess. The music I wanted to make was always like really atmospheric. I always wanted to make that kind of slow, soundtrack kind of stuff.” Over a century of being exposed to cinema has resulted in filmic language creeping into our imaginations by osmosis. Jerkcurb makes music for the imagined soundtracks of our hyperreality, summoning scenes from films that don’t yet exist, but ought to. The baleful jazz of title track “Air Con Eden” is for its titular character’s descent into debauchery and darkness, the building bells-into-triumphant chorus of “Devils Catflap” for redemptive journeys end, the Mellotron eerie of “Wishbones” for lovers’ haunts, long-abandoned after some apocalyptic event.

The video for “Voodoo Saloon”, a collaboration with filmmakers and childhood friends CC Wade, is a masterful extension of the Jerkcurb Cinematic Universe, dancing somewhere between a Rat Pack studio taping and a neo-spaghetti western. Meanwhile, the process of animating “Somerton Beach” provided a breakthrough in discovering his distinctive aesthetic. “When I started doing Jerkcurb, I could never find my drawing style suited the music. That video was the first time. I knew what kind of music I wanted to make, and I knew what kind of art I wanted to make.” The video sees a balding middle-aged loner escaping an existence trudging between a seedy motel and a strip mall, into his favourite record as the debonair troubadour star on its sleeve. 

“When something is so inauthentic, it has its own sort of authenticity” – Jerkcurb

The mall, the subject of Read’s dissertation, finds a new home as repeat motif throughout the Jerkcurb universe. “If you look at the Victor Gruen shopping malls, they’re beautiful, because they look like a Kew Gardens or something back in the 50s.” Gruen had dreamt that his shopping malls would be remedies to what he observed as alienation of the disconnected American small towns and suburbs. They were to be enclosed, temperature-controlled spaces, featuring all sorts of wonders beneath skylights. Air Con Edens.

The internet would eventually supersede the need for physical shopping experiences, and so the mall, once the scourge of generation reared on mom-and-pop America, became the fond memories and the lamented loss of generations after. Sections of the web are now dedicated to chronicling the fate of ‘dead malls’, which are also the subject of Read’s animated short Parthenon Mall. He fondly recalls his own childhood visits to Dartford’s Shopping Centre. “I loved the art direction, because you don’t even look at it, you don’t even notice it. It’s just there to make you feel something, to aid this experience of shopping.” He was particularly enamoured with their (mis)-appropriations of culture; wonders of ancient Greece and Rome used as decoration for discount retail, cowboys-and-Indians restaurants and tiki-bars. “These themed places were such bastardisations. Mutated things from other things. It’s just so... wrong! But when something is so inauthentic, it has its own sort of authenticity.”

Jerkcurb is full of his own deliberate bastardisations. Unlike say, the vaporwave genre, where the nostalgic melancholy lies in remembering a time when cyberspace seemed to brim with potential before it ceded (perhaps inevitably) to bland corporate homogeneity, the Jerkcurb universe is a sort of nostalgia twice, maybe thrice, removed. The 80s and early-90s were obsessed with the 50s, itself an era virtually defined by its own nostalgia for traditional values rapidly fading in the face of oncoming futurism. “I’m really interested in midcentury-America, because it’s the sort of embryonic stages of capitalism as we know it today,” Jerkcurb reflects. “This post-war idealism, it’s something I find fascinating, because we now live in a cynical, yet arguably a lot more honest world.”

The vantage point of the present allows us to look back at midcentury culture without feeling any personal pang of a lost past, or a thwarted disappointment at futures never-realised – ‘hauntology’, as the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher might have described it. When your understanding of midcentury Americana is one learned through the subversive lens of David Lynch and other subsequent satires, the dark underbelly bubbling beneath the era’s sentimental superficiality becomes enthralling in of itself. Consumerism no longer feels the need to hide behind such enticing disguises. It’s a sterile Apple Store, a product on a plinth, an item added to a digital shopping cart – no attempt to dress up the benign transactional experience of shopping as anything more than what it is, to elicit some auxiliary experience or theatre alongside the mindless consumption. Jerkcurb’s output is a seemingly-paradoxical amalgam of objects and themes, transmogrified together out of proper time and place. 

After the release of Air Con Eden, another priority is expanding the Jerkcurb live show. Having secured backing singers, he hopes to make it even more theatrical. “I want it to be a visual thing, to get more of a weird experience,” he says. “Basically, what I really want is to get some animatronic robots on stage.” That would be Jerkcurb’s fictional backing band, the Jerks, who currently only exist in his artwork. Any other lofty ambitions? Playing a gig in Cornwall’s Eden Project, the world’s largest indoor rainforest, he says. A suitably Victor Gruen dream. “Man, that place, you ever been there? It would be my number one place. One day. Maybe I’ll make my own…”

Jerkcurb’s debut album Air Con Eden is out September 13