Frustration with Stagnation: A Conversation with Jean Caffeine

by Michi Heckler

Jean Caffeine

Jean Caffeine, raised in the era of Bay Area Punk, relishes in her memory of music experiences to find a personal story for her concept album, Sadie Saturday Night to be released in August, which you can support on IndieGoGo. Read her accounts of the ‘80s, being a teenage punk-rocker, excess coffee and blue hair as she unfolds her history.

Michi Heckler for Ovrld: Hi Jean! How are you?       

Jean Caffeine: Hello, present and accounted for.

Ovrld: I’m sure you get a lot of comments on this, but is Jean Caffeine your real name?

JC: No.

Ovrld: Where did it come from?

JC: There’s like a punk rock moniker. I was working on this magazine called Search and Destroy as a helper, these academic publications on subculture, and I would help the editor of the magazine in San Francisco, I don’t even remember what I would do to help him. I think it had something to do with art and I said, “Don’t use my real ass name anymore!” and he said “Well, you need a cool last name.” And he had some kind of espresso maker that made six cups at a time. I was so young, I didn’t know what it was, you know we were used to coffee makers that made one cup at time. I would drink most of the coffee from the espresso maker and when he told me I needed a cool name, I was hyper and drinking all of that coffee, I was like ok, Jean Caffeine.

Ovrld: Well, I think many people can relate. Are you still a huge coffee fanatic?

JC: No, I guess because I was so hyper and such an adrenaline junkie, now I’m having trouble having fatigue, and you’d think I would keep drinking coffee but there is like a backlash, a tender relationship between coffee and fatigue. I still love my coffee, but I would say, unless I’m on a trip, I have one espresso a day.

Ovrld: Yeah, you have to find a good balance.

JC: Our whole society is strung out on coffee and I love it. I’d like more than I’m having but I don’t want to be any more burned out than I am. Chlorine is my other drug of choice. I like to swim.

Ovrld: So how did this record Sadie Saturday Night come to be?

JC: This record is a little different; it didn’t come in a usual organic way. It came as a byproduct with the one-woman show I’ve been doing. The origin is different because it comes from a performance piece.

Ovrld: So, Sadie Saturday Night is a concept album for the San Francisco punk scene?

JC: Yes, and it’s a companion to this piece I did. And the album isn’t super punk, it’s got one or two tracks that sound punkier than what I put out in the past. But it’s how I remembered it in the past. The performance has samples and covers with originals too.

Ovrld: Even though only a few tracks are punk, with documentaries following classic punk venues like 924 Gilman Street, East Bay Punk seems to be making a comeback.

JC: It’s so weird! I’ve been working on this piece forever, first as a written piece, and then as a show and then now, this year is the 40th anniversary of punk for me, and it’s the 40th anniversary for many punk albums. Like The Damned came through for their 40th anniversary, same with The Clash, Sex Pistols and the birth and emergence of regional punk bands that responded to the English scene.

Ovrld: You were ahead of the curve then.

JC: Yeah, I’m always ahead of the curve but I’m never aligned with the curve, you know what I mean? Maybe it will work out, but it would be gold to have this album by June.

Jean Caffeine Don Letts

Jean Caffeine hanging out with Don Letts at Asbury Park

Ovrld: Has it been hectic working around this album?

JC: Today is actually my day off, because I’m not just a performer, I’m the producer and everything, I am so exhausted.

Ovrld: Absolutely. You deserve a good break.

JC: I’ve been trying, I’m always watching TV online, which is so gross, it’s probably why I’m so fatigued. Our culture watches so much TV. Everything has been so concurring. It’s been very un-rock-and-roll.

Ovrld: I’d love to hear a little more about how you got the idea for the album.

JC: I grew up in San Francisco, haven’t worked there since ’81 and left in ‘81. I was a teenager in the first new wave punk scene but before punk, I was just sort of into your generic ‘70s rock and roll, going to arena shows on weekends.

Ovrld: Well you have lived the dream for many, witnessing firsthand the East Bay punk scene.

JC: I’ve lived through many dreams.  I somehow have been in places with really exciting scenes on more than once occasion and that was certainly the first and most defining.

Yeah, and by the way some of the songs on Sadie were on the last album but they’ve been repurposed and they’re different. Like I got the title from the song because it kind of preceded all the writings that turned into the show. I wasn’t sure what format it would be, like an EP or whatever. So I ended up doing six new songs, and repurposing some songs I already recorded, and adding tracks to them or taking out vocals and putting spoken word stories over them. Sadie will sound a little different on the next album, maybe better.

I didn’t have this lightning bolt experience with punk, I started working on some memoirs and there were some sparks that got me writing. To me, writing is such a high and I had various experiences in writing workshops and work, and I saw a sign for writing workshops for Pamela Des Barres, she calls herself the world’s most famous groupie. So I saw a poster that she was going to do writing workshop and showed up and there were all these prompts to get you to remember things, and lots of prompts you know, were about women in rock and roll. She still comes to town too. So I didn’t write anything in there that turned into Sadie, it just sort of turned the faucet on. And I wrote a lot on my own and was encouraged by people I played music with.

One guy in Canada, he was in a band that won a Canadian Grammy in the ‘90s, and he encouraged me to tell my stories. Josh Robbins, from The Invincible Czars, he played a show with me and we had some correspondence as strangers because I needed a guitar player to help me work out this idea for the show and it ended up helping a lot. I bounced all sorts of ideas off of him and he came up with all kinds of cool arrangements. Maybe one or two songs we co-wrote. But I had written something more expansive than just about the punk scene, and I jokingly say– but it’s true– I would want Josh to stick around and work with me on the piece and he would play a gig with me, he knew certain songs in my set, and I had some songs that related to the pre-punk, punk scene.

Did that make sense? I wish I had a sound bite of when I realized I wanted to do it, but it was really an evolutionary process. If he hadn’t agreed to help me, I might have started at a different point, like my experience in New York in the ‘80s, because I’ve done all of these writings and I just grabbed onto this one chapter, and really went down the rabbit hole. And I thought I didn’t remember a lot from punk, and I didn’t want to remember that much stuff. People love to glorify their punk history, but I hadn’t wanted to in the past. But for whatever reason, I kind of wanted to do the opposite. But for me, when I get out of something fresh, if there are any wounds or anything, then I don’t want to think about it. But then you get to some other place where you’re all scabbed up and those wounds don’t really hurt you anymore and you kind of revisit them and re-experience them in a dissociated way. You know, like you’re not your body.

Ovrld: That’s a new, deeper way of looking at it. Do you have a certain picture or idea of what punk is to you or others?

JC: I need tidy answers. I think to me punk was about community and rebellion. And DIY. Legacy and DIY and people just deciding to start a band, or start a magazine, or I want to start something. I don’t think we had that culture at all before punk, and that culture is so prevalent now that we’re on overload.

Ovrld: Yeah, we all want to take action.

JC: Yeah, more people are taking action but when less people take action, more people notice. Too many people taking action, all out there doing it simultaneously and it’s harder to have identity. It meant defiance, and frustration with stagnation. In my album, I didn’t mean to avoid peace and politics; it just ended up taking a sort of inward and more personal story focus. Even the look of punk is everywhere now. I mean everyone and their brother has blue hair!

Ovrld: It’s definitely more common and accepted than before.

JC: Yeah, I have a song on my album called “Blue Haired Boy,” because I remember the first time I saw a guy with entirely blue hair. It was completely, you know, exciting!

I see people my age with a little bit of pink or purple hair, not that there is anything wrong with that. But back when I had color in my hair, guys were shouting at me the street, all kinds of crap! My dad was shouting at me “How the hell are you going to get a job with that hair!”

Ovrld: Are you ever urged to go back to your colored-hair days?

JC: I had some colored hair, in 2008 or 2009, I had blue hair and I loved it. Again, it was just before it was a thing. It was three years before everyone had it.

Ovrld: Still ahead of the curve I guess.

JC: It’s impossible to go back to normal color, and now I would rather be like, boring than doing what everyone else is doing. Know what I mean? But I love the blue.

Jean Caffeine

Ovrld: So It’s your day off, what are you doing today?

JC: I sometimes do artwork. I’m going to teach a collage class, for practice. I go to my little garden, which isn’t that special but makes me feel special to flutter around it. I swim; do yoga, very un-punk things. Sometimes I lay around with many cats and watch TV on my computer. Basic boring stuff. Cook, domestic things. I moved south, so I can’t walk to my coffee shop anymore. Now, I can’t walk to anything. It bums me out so I’ve been kind of a hermit crab since I moved here.

Ovrld: It’s easy to fall into a hermit lifestyle.

JC: Yeah it is. I go to San Francisco every year or so. It’s a different life there, on the bus and drinking coffee, eating Chinese and bus and the beach. I’ve been in Austin in and out for twenty years, and I love it but I think I am a very urban person, and I miss it. Austin is urban without the structure of urban society. If I had a bike I could ride two miles to a coffee shop.

Ovrld: Two miles too far.

JC: Yeah, maybe if it were one mile. That’s the life I want.

Ovrld: The song Sadie Saturday Night and the album are related; can we expect more spin offs from the Geckos in the Elevator? Maybe a Mary O’Shea special album?

JC: I doubt it. But Mary O’Shea is a funny story too. I went to this art museum and it had a huge renovation but an old original building. And they took us through there and basically told us a ghost story, which I completely believed, and I went upstairs and wrote most of the song that was about one of the buildings in the art museum. But when I went home, I wondered if it were true, and I started doing all of this research and it turned out that the ghost story was an inspiration. It was an artist creation. She created all of these objects around the ghost story and she made a narrative and I wrote a song about it. It’s the opposite of Sadie. You’re probably teasing me.

Ovrld: Not at all! Spin-offs are always fun, especially to long-time listeners.

JC: Well I’ve been toying with the idea of an ‘80s theme album. I have two songs that I started recording five years ago that I finished with Sadie, but it doesn’t work with the album. So I have two leftover songs that I need to do something with. I don’t know if it will be another concept album. Maybe I’ll put out songs like normal people instead of being so conceptual.

Ovrld: Well thank you so much, and I can’t wait to hear where the leftovers turn up!

JC: Thank you, and see you soon.