By Vincent Poturica
After a recent show at Big V’s Saloon in St. Paul, MN – Battle Napkin (www.myspace.com/battlenapkin) plays a 45-minute set, six long songs, “Snakes on a Plane,” “Fushitsusha,” “Sensational Crime,” “Martian March,” “Napkin Violence,” “Solutions.” Jason’s guitar veers away from Ollie’s drum beat and Lindsey’s bass line. A man with hair hanging to his nipples dances a jig. A stuffed grey lion watches from above a wooden liquor cabinet. Customers sitting at bar stools or tables stand, walk towards the corner stage to hear the music better. Jason, crouching, now on his knees, shakes his guitar at an amplifier. What do you call the sounds he makes? – I spoke with Battle Napkin’s songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Jason Hallen. He cooked a canelli bean and spinach pasta as we talked in the kitchen of his Northfield, MN apartment. His ginger-colored kitten Flannery Lynn ran in circles around my feet.
Jason: It’s a Rachel Ray recipe. This dish.
Vincent: Right on. You’re cooking a lot these days, right?
J: Yeah, when I first moved in here (September 2010), I was cooking a lot. I don’t think I ate out more than 3 times that month. Now I eat out for awhile, not really well. Then I cook. I feel guilty and bad about blowing money and eating crap. It’s healthier and more cost effective and I get more meals at once. It also throws off your schedule.
V: Yeah, cooking’s prudent. So, how’d you describe Battle Napkin’s music?
J: I guess I would describe it – I usually call it rock. Maybe art rock. I don’t know. It’s definitely the kind of music where we don’t really set out to do anything. We just try to write songs that appeal to our sensibilities, to the things we like. Sometimes it comes out like rock. Sometimes it comes out like jazz. Or really heavy metal. Or surf. Or noise. To me rock means indie rock, maybe, and art rock and stuff from the 70s.
V: Huh, can you describe the origin or the “how-it-all-began” with Battle Napkin?
J: It started out with Ollie [Moltaji, Battle Napkin’s drummer] and I. We went to high school and college together. At Carleton, we started Rag P and Ollie, which was heavily performance based at first and then it became increasingly musical. Then we met and wanted a punk singer and you called us up or Marissa introduced us. Then it turned into an actual band. Torn Anus/Torn Angst/Rainbow Magical. The downfall of that band/bands was that none of those incarnations was ever very disciplined.
J: So I was never able to go anywhere or be anything. I did some solo noise shows. But I never had the discipline. I was also in a band with Matt Weir, a weirdo noise/punk rock band – me playing guitar and synthesizer and him playing guitar and keyboard. We reached a level of noise that I was proud of. We made a recording in 2008 that I still appreciate. Spelling Made Easy was our first name.
V: A great name.
J: David Diarrhea . . .
J: Anyways, me and Matt Weir started calling ourselves Osama Bin Ladies as well as Mother Over Shoulder (a reference to M.O.S., online chatting slang). A proud moment was when the band Negativland (complimented that name, thought it was awesome). Again, a lot of potential with glimpses that never was realized. Then I started practicing guitar seriously, becoming more disciplined. So I was trying to write more. The first Battle Napkin show was in March or April of 2009. So I’d been practicing guitar for a year before playing anything live, developing more skills and technique. That first show Ollie and I performed with Sara Nienaber (of Gospel Gossip – Ollie is also a member of Gospel Gossip).
Battle Napkin emerged because Ollie and I always wanted to play music together.
V: Right on. So what about the Battle Napkin name?
J: Ollie came up with that because he always keeps a running list on his iPhone of band names which are usually pretty terrible, but we both liked Battle Napkin.
V: So it doesn’t mean anything?
J: As far as I know, nothing. What I always liked about the name was just the juxtaposition of two uncommon things – battle being this aggressive term, and napkin, the embodiment of the wimpiest thing. The first time I heard it I think I laughed really hard. People think it sounds like the name of a woman’s sanitary pad or a handkerchief to cover a wound, something really literal, physical. But to me it’s always just been this really funny combination of words. I never jump to trying to picture something specific.
V: You’ve mentioned to me before that humor plays a part in what you do? Can you elaborate?
J: Right around this time Dinner for Schmucks came out…“You don’t have to raise your hands, but how many people feel like you’re having dinner with Schmucks right now?” And people were laughing and raising their hands. I was basically copying Neil Hamburger. So the next show we did, I even practiced and recorded the humor act. And no one was digging it. So I felt really shaken. But I went back and listened to a recording of the show, the music sounded really good. And that taught me a lesson in suspending judgment. I think comedy needs come naturally and be real and spontaneous.
V: So, how many shows have you played now with Battle Napkin?
J: I would estimate at maybe 20.
V: What about your influences as a musician, as a guitarist?
J: Keiji Hiano and his band Fushitsusha, Joe Morris, the avant-garde jazz guitarist. It doesn’t even make sense to call him a jazz musician, but what’s he’s doing is avant-garde. It sounds academic when you say that, like you’re trying to advance a form, but I don’t mean that in terms of Morris. I think he’s trying to get in touch with a beauty that he feels. I think those are the big influences in how I want to play. Eric Dolphy, the saxophonist and reed player does stuff that’s really inspiring to me musically. Talking Heads and This Heat. A lot of bands from the 70s. Any band that plays guitars and makes really nice arrangements with guitar soloing. If people know Television, they can hear it in Battle Napkin. If they don’t know Television, they compare us to the Grateful Dead. Because the Grateful Dead are all about beautiful, warm-toned, jammy but good-structured, not lazy music. I’m definitely not offended if anyone tells us we sound like the Grateful Dead or Phish. Because they haven’t heard Television.
V: What does music do for you? What do you want it to do for other people?
J: I really like music that’s beautiful. And I like stuff that’s dynamic and rhythmical, and so, I mean, that’s the stuff I go for. Stuff that fills me with a real sense of beauty. Music that uplifts you. And it can be a sad song and uplift you. Whenever you have people being real and helping you to see something really real. Like Flannery O’Connor, you see some sad things, some flawed things, but connecting someone with that human condition is powerful in itself. And that’s what I hope to do with music. Really – my real goal with music is to write something and to play it and it to come out decently. I want it to be good in my eyes. So I’m not really – I don’t really approach it in the sense of, “I want the audience to feel this way, or I want to evoke this sentiment,” I want it to be a song that I think is a passable. I think I’ll add those beans now.