The nomaic Jacob Perkins, hailing from Portland, currently in New Zealand, and about to move to Paris, talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about his EP, The Birds and the Beasties.


JACOB PERKINS is an American musician and filmmaker who’s been kicking around New Zealand for a wee while, making a bit of a name for himself with his guitar-based music. He’s about to head to Paris for an artists’ residency, and will continue developing his passion for stop motion animation. His release, The Birds and the Beasties reflects Perkins’s lo-fi and alternative routes. Perkins’s music is fiercely DIY and the album features some beautiful melodies and an intimate spareness that’s arresting.

Perkins was always into music growing up. He says he was “one of those dancing babies who bobbed around in my diapers inventing interpretive dances to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” As he grew older he pretended to be into Marilyn Manson and other popular music of the late 90s while secretly listening to Paul Simon and the Talking Heads. Perkins says “one of my best friend’s Dads used to be in The Turtles before they got famous, and he talked a few of us kids into starting a band. He was the drummer, and taught us songs like ‘Pipeline’ and ‘Wipeout’ and we actually performed at our 8th grade graduation dance much to the chagrin of the other 8th graders who wanted to do the Macarena. As the prepubescent front man, I whined out other popular numbers like ‘About a Girl’ and ‘My Friends’ a few octaves too high as our confused classmates tried to dance. When our set was over the crowd politely applauded and for some reason I’ve been playing ever since.”

Perkins comes from Oregon, whose biggest city Portland has been well-regarded as an indie hotpot for some time. Perkins agrees saying “Portland really is an indie hotspot, and it’s not something that’s exclusive to music. The art scene is really rich and diverse, and there’s a push for originality in all forms of expression. It can get pretty over the top, but even the weirdest things have this really great wholesomeness about them.” Perkins elaborates by saying “I think that a place can be summed up by the quality of its homeless population. The hobos in Portland are weird and strung out, but creative. I once watched a particularly crazy guy pull a coffee cup from a trash can, remove the cardboard heat shield, piss in the cup and then pour the piss over the outside of the trash can. He was standing next to another guy who will write you a little poem if you give him some cash, one of the many homeless artists that roam the city’s underbelly. Historically, Northwestern Oregon saw the beginning of the Beat Generation, producing literary legends like Gary Snyder (whom Kerouac refers to as Japhy Rider), and Ken Kesey and more recently produced a bunch of really great music, including the brilliant musical flash that was Elliot Smith. I think weather has a profound effect on an area’s music, and there it’s really rainy and miserable for about eight months of the year and awesomely sunny for four. There are five or six universities around town and some of them have pretty hot reputations for liberal arts colleges, and this attracts a lot of young intellectuals, but when folks finish school and go out to find jobs, a lot of them are forced to leave town because there aren’t many jobs in Portland. The unemployment rate is through the roof, the suicide rate is really high, and there’s a big heroin problem all of which the locals blame on the long rainy winters. I think that these things contribute to its reputation as an Indie hot-spot.”

Perkins says “here’s the recipe if you want to make it at home” which he admits is “kind of sad, but I think there is a lot of truth in that equation.”

       A handful of creative hippy kids and hobos
       1 long rainy winter
       0 Jobs
       a pinch of heroin
       stick into cheap recording gear and let stew

It does raise expectations for musicians from Oregon, but Perkins says “I don’t think the Portland indie label effects me much, and if it does, it’s probably positive. I actually grew up in a really remote town which barely even has a name, so I just tell people I’m from Oregon.”

Perkins moved to New Zealand, because his wife Hana Miller is a Kiwi by birth. He says “I find the New Zealand music scene to be extremely accessible, especially when compared to the States where there are so many bands it’s just overhwhelming. Here, you make friends with somebody in line at the supermarket and it turns out they’re Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords or something. I find the music scene kind of conservative though. There are certain scenes and pretty definitive genres. I feel like an oddball at most of my shows. Punk rockers expect me to be a folk singer, folk singers think I’m some kind of belligerent punk, and indie kids call my music ‘country’, when really I guess I’m somewhere in between or neither. But all that aside, the bottom line is that I find that creatively I’m productive here. There’s something about being on the fringe of the world, close to Antarctica and surrounded by volcanoes that gets me really juiced.”

Perkins is a bit of a nomad, and he’s about to move to Paris. I ask if that assists his music, always being an outsider, drifting around the globe. He says, “in the last five years I’ve done a lot of migrating, usually chasing the sun. I do feel like a bit of an outsider sometimes, but I think my nomadic way of life makes for a lot of different ‘insider views’. I’ve been in so many peoples houses in the last few years, I’ve seen the way they make their nests and sustain their lives, I’ve listened to them spout their worries and their delights, and nobody I’ve met is quite the same. Even in tight immobile communities everybody’s got a different outlook. I’ve become pretty adaptable as a result of all the change I put myself through, and I think it gives my songs a perspective I wouldn’t have if I was anchored someplace.”

Perkins’s EP, The Birds and the Beasties was recorded in Jakarta, and Perkins recorded everything himself (though Miller played a bit of piano). “I didn’t even have my own guitar to work with because my trusty sidekick “Huckleberry” had just been smashed on the airplane, so I ended up doing a lot of creative problem solving. I made mic-stands out of bamboo, soundproofed with old blankets, and none of my recording gear could be grounded electrically so I made these wire contraptions that I had to stand on with bare feet while I played to eliminate horrible buzzing noises.” He describes the recording process by saying “everything was funky, and nothing was by the book which made the album a lot of fun to record, and it feels good to know that it's all completely original stuff through and through.”

Perkins says songs often come to him “while walking. And I walk a lot, everywhere. Usually I’ll be humming a tune and then open my mouth, which releases a bunch of gibberish that eventually sorts itself out into a finished song.” Perkins confesses that “I don’t ever feel like my songs are ‘done’, but usually when they're ready they sort of take over my mind and press record, or just appear on a set-list before a show. I’ve got a whole stash of songs that hate to be recorded or played too, they just hang out in my brain.”

While ostensibly a solo project, Perkins has tacked the “Nobody” onto his name. Perkins says “I played a show in Auckland a few years ago with some friends from other bands, Josh and Jamie Kennedy (Surf City), Luke Munn (The Ribbon), and Sam Prebble (Bond Street Bridge). We didn’t practice even once and the name ‘The Nobody’ was tagged on at the last minute and then just stuck. It describes my ‘solo-ness’ as a musician but it also acknowledges the fact that there are countless forces at work behind the scenes. To say that I do it all myself would be a crime. There are other musicians who join the act in various places, and the name leaves room for them as well. Nobody is a funny word, it describes the lack of a body, and it gives me a kick when I imagine my back up band as a big “no body” keeping it real on the nothings.”

Perkins is also a big fan of stop-motion animation. The Birds and the Beasties contains an excellent music video for ‘Last Transmission’, and Perkins has made other stop-motion work. He was inspired by “Sesame Street mostly. Watching the stop-motion bits on Sesame Street used to amaze me. It’s real, and it’s magic at the same time. I tried it out when I was younger, but realised my attention span was far too short to make anything cool, and I only recently picked it up again. My first attempts took very little time to make, but as my process evolves and my puppets and sets get more and more detailed, everything slows way down. Sometimes, after working on a few seconds of action for weeks, I need to step back and do something really simple to remember how gratifying the results can be.”

He envisages plenty more animation to come, and it will complement his musical career. “My next album is set to be released with a stop-motion short, and my passion for animation is only growing. I often dream of making an epic stop-motion opera, set in the real world, where the characters are made out of the inanimate objects of the scene, whether that be the forest or the city. Someday I might create a foundation for time-lapse documentation of the lives of tree species since most of them live way longer than I do. I’ve been working a bit with Vice magazine in NY to make some animation for VBS.TV, which has been a cool opportunity. Also, Hana and I are working a short stop motion film that we’re set to record in a couple of months during an artist residency in France. It’s about ‘home’ and related poetic phenomenon, like settling, falling into place, immigration, belonging, place of origin etc, though it will be an entirely visual production. There’s a stop-motion revolution coming, and I’m trying to get a head-start on all of the little kids who were born holding digital cameras.” Perkins is certainly an artist to keep an eye out for, and whether it’s in film or music or both, there’s some considerable talent evident.