Jason Webley knows a thing or two about the rigors of touring. Though the Washington-based accordionist began as a street busker, his decade-long career has taken him from pole to pole, playing for crowds near the Arctic Circle to Australia who come out to hear his mélange of gypsy, folk and punk sensibilities. In the early ’00s, Webley took performance art to a new level by staging his “death” annually around Halloween. After a few months of silence, Webley would then reappear, “reborn” in more and more elaborate manners that would make Lazarus wince.
Currently, Webley is visiting venues on the West Coast with his annual Monsters of Accordion tour. He took a moment to check in with Spectrum Culture from Europe to discuss Russia, rebirth and revolutions.

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So I was talking to Bob Crawford from the Avett Bros the other day and he mentioned you have a gigantic following in Russia to the point that you play headlining slots at large festivals. Tell me more about that?

That isn’t entirely accurate. I do have a big following in Russia and have played some big shows in some pretty crazy places there… but I don’t headline the major music festivals. Though last week, I did perform with Amanda Palmer (of the Dresden Dolls) at one of the biggest festivals in Moscow. I think what Bob was referring to was a couple gigs I did last year in a town called Norilsk which is one of the largest cities in the world above the Arctic Circle, and probably
the biggest city in the world that can only be reached by airplane. It is a former gulag, a massive metal ore town, an environmental disaster, an oligarch-run step back in time to Soviet Russia, and the home of many sweet, warm souls. And strangely my music was better received there than anywhere I’ve ever played. After a small gig at a “week of culture” event that I performed, I was invited back to perform at the city’s 55th anniversary concert. The only other band invited was “Machina Vreminya” who are basically like the Rolling Stone of Russian rock.

Do you have an affinity for Russia?

Yes! But I have an affinity for a lot of places. I feel like I have a life that I live and a circle of friends and family in each place I go, and start to miss them when I’m away for a while.

Let’s talk about the Monsters of Accordion tour. How did the idea come to be?

Well, it was maybe eight years ago, I was invited by Kimric Smythe, accordion repair mad-man to play at an accordion-fueled event he held each year in Oakland. There I met Daniel Ari and Duckmandu, who both blew my mind. I had never met other accordion players who were doing
work that excited me before. We decided to do a show together the next time I was in the bay, which the venue (21 Grand) named “Monsters of Accordion.” We loved the show and the name, and made a little tour together. After three little tours like this, I got bored of the idea and decided to try bringing some new folks into the mix. This is the third year with a changing line-up, and it is now one of my favorite tours that I do.

Tell me about the people playing on the tour this year.

Eric Stern is from Portland. He is the leader of the popular cabaret group, Vagabond Opera. We first met in 1999, I think, when we were both touring Canada with different theater groups. He has an amazing operatic voice and is a devilishly good accordionist, playing in a bunch of styles from all over the planet.

When I first heard about Geoff Berner, I felt threatened. He’s a guy with an accordion who travels the world singing drinking songs, jumps on tables. I saw we were touring near each other and invited him to join me for a couple shows. We have been good friends ever since. We have very different styles and energies, and make a good team. He writes dark songs full of his wry humor and fueled by his Klezmer roots. He also, at times, writes some of the prettiest songs you’ve
ever heard.

I just met Stevhen Iancu last year. I’d heard of him for ages, he used to be in Gogol Bordello, and I finally got to see him play when he did a show in an underground venue in Seattle last year. His music is a mix of Japanese and Balkan rhythms, and is probably the most
danceable music on the tour. He is coming all the way from his home in Tokyo for this tour, and I’m really excited to have him.

I know you play a variety of instruments but is the accordion your favorite? Why/why not?

Hmmm… I don’t know if I have a favorite instrument… the human body and voice are the instrument. All of these other things are accessories. I LOVE a lot of things about the accordion. I love how versatile it is and how much sound you can make. I love that it makes your body move and dance when you play it. I love that it keeps my voice and feet free to make more noise while I play, I love that it remains a bit of a mystery to me and that when I reach for a button, I’m not entirely sure that the note I expect is going to come out. I don’t really consider myself to be an accordion player actually; to me it is another tool… but a pretty damn cool one.

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I’ll be seeing you in Portland. Do you get to spend a lot of time down here?

Yeah. It is so close to Seattle, so I pass through usually more than most other cities. Maybe six or more times in a year. I don’t usually get to stay too long though, sadly.

What do you like to do when you’re here?

Usually I don’t have a lot of time, and just hang out with my friends. Sometimes I end up going on bike rides, wandering in Powell’s, playing mid-night glow-in-the-dark boccie.

You’ve been at this for about a decade now. How have things changed for you over those 10 years? What inspires you to keep going?

Well, a lot has changed. I never really thought this would be a full time job when I started 10 years ago. So psychologically, my whole approach is different now. It is harder for things to remain surprising and fresh and honest in the same way when you’ve been doing something for any period of time. Luckily, the people who seem to be drawn to my music and the places I get invited to travel to, and the folks who I’ve been lucky enough to work with all keep things pretty
damn interesting, and keep me feeling pretty blessed and humbled.

What places hold your biggest fan base? Do any of them surprise you?

My biggest fan-bases are on the West Coast and in Russia, but I’ve also built up nice little followings here and there just about everywhere in the world. I just played my first show in Lithuania and more than 100 people came out, a nice first gig in a capital I’ve never set foot in and have no label promoting me. I do well in Mexico City, in much or Europe and I get a lot of mail asking me to come back to Australia since opening for the Dresden Dolls there a couple years
ago.

Why does the “gypsy” thing act as such a draw for people? What is it about the mythology that intrigues us so much?

I have a few friends who were in my life when I was young and whose lives really challenged and expanded my ideas of what a life in this world could be. Two of them were twin brothers, Brad and Carter Wall. They would show up in my life every few months and yank me out of my somewhat mundane scholarly life and take me on adventures that I still remember more vividly than anything else from those times – riding our bikes for a day to get to a concert we were too young to attend, hopping a freight train to Wenatchee, etc… One day they got on their bikes and went to Chile. I didn’t see them for four or five years, but just knowing they were out there living magical lives probably was one of the things that eventually caused something to break and sent me onto the streets with my accordion.

Now that you’ve “died” and “reborn” a few times, what’s left?

That’s a good question. I stopped doing that five years ago, and since then in some respect everything feels a bit anti-climactic. But it was necessary and I am slowly learning how to exist in a world where I don’t need to/get to die all the time.

You opened your own label in 2004. How is that going? What has it taught you about the music world? Has anything disillusioned you?

Well, I had basically been running my own releases since I first started in 1998. The only change was that I decided to actually call my business a record label. But I haven’t changed the way I do things much, I still pretty much run everything myself and it barely operates with the regular music world. There have been a few disillusionments though. Just recently my distributor – a longtime distributor of punk and DIY labels – went under owing me and many other people a ton of money. That is sad, and communication has been very poor with them.

I know you like to keep your fans on their toes with inventive performance art and impromptu performances. Have there been a few instances where your fans surprised you?

Sure… but usually outside of the context of the shows. The other day in Latvia, folks surprised me by kidnapping me and taking me out to a cabin on the Baltic where we hunted mushrooms, cooked them, swam in the ocean. I had no idea where I was, or where I was going. It was lovely.

What’s the story with this Neil Gaiman project? Seems like his profile just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Well, Neil has helped out a little bit with the Evelyn Evelyn project that Amanda Palmer and I are producing. He will also be in Scotland with me next month when we are working on some sort of recording project that I know very little about at the moment. I just know we will be somewhere on the Isle of Skye and I’m bringing some microphones. But yes, his world keeps getting bigger. It is amazing to see how well his latest book and the Coraline movie have been received. It is nice to see that kind of attention and praise going to someone who deserves it – he is a very kind man, and has so much creative energy, I hope we will work on some other things together.

How many times does one have to revolve before they feel drunk?

Different people have really different tolerances. Sometimes there will be a whirling dervish in the crowd and it is frustrating because the usual 12 spins have no discernible effect on them.

by David Harris
[Photos: Dianna Augustine]

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