Jean-Paul Vest of Last Charge Of The Light Horse: The Daily Vault Interview

by Jason Warburg


Last Charge Of The Light Horse is the brainchild of singer/songwriter/guitarist Jean-Paul Vest, and their debut disc Getaway Car is the album I just named my favorite independent release of 2005. Jean-Paul was kind enough to spend some time over the holidays conducting the following interview. In the course of a series of e-mails we covered ground ranging from the inspiration for the new album, to the transition from JP's previous group Blue Sandcastle, the validity of rock as an art form, and the perils of navigating the New York grid in a car with Last Charge's father-and-son rhythm section, A.J. and Artie Riegger. We even talked about music... a little. Enjoy!

Daily Vault: Getaway Car melds purposeful, poetic lyrics with stripped-down rock and roll in a manner that inevitably reminds of artists like Springsteen and Dylan. Who would you say your biggest influences were as you conceived this album?

Jean-Paul Vest: The majority of the songs were written over a period of about two years, and the stack of CDs at my desk almost always includes something by the Replacements, Bob Mould, and Wilco, so I'm sure they figure in prominently. Dylan was definitely an influence on this album, in particular the arrangement of "Cold Irons Bound" that he did for the soundtrack of Masked And Anonymous. There's some tremendous writing on Emmylou Harris' album Red Dirt Girl ("like falling stars from the universe, we are hurled / down through the long loneliness of the world") that's both intimately personal and grandly poetic. I borrowed a turntable from a friend and got reacquainted with some Miracle Legion discs that I have on vinyl, and spent some time trying to figure out how they communicate so profoundly. Those songs are like old friends -- I know them by heart, and they resonate strongly within me, even in some cases where I don't understand the lyrics. In fact, the inspiration for "Miracles" was my long love affair with their music. "Circles" is something that I wrote years ago, when I was on a steady diet of Lloyd Cole and Nick Drake. As Bob Stander and I were mixing the album, we spent some time listening to the second volume of Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares, the Bulgarian women's choirs, to give our ears a break in between songs. Those recordings are very stark and passionate, and listening to that set an interesting tone for some of the sessions, in that it made us seek those same qualities in our own work.

The Replacements, Wilco, Emmylou… yeah, I hear all of them. So, the big question for many independent artists in your shoes is, once the album's done, how do you get the word out? How's it going in terms of promotion so far, and what's the response been like?

Promotion is a long, slow haul. As with the Blue Sandcastle record, we've decided to do the media mailings ourselves, starting with the places that gave us positive reviews last time. You have to be prepared to wait several months before you see the results of your work. This time around we've hired someone to help us with radio promotion, and we're scheduled to begin that in February. The response is definitely encouraging so far. Our parents and friends are all very impressed -- ha, ha. But the fact is that we all have demanding day jobs, and AJ and I are raising families, so we're obliged to work for a slow build, rather than a big bang, and we're only a few steps out of the starting gate at this point.

Promotion can be tough. I'm glad the Vault could do our part for such a worthy effort. Now, about that worthy effort. I've gotten into a fair number of arguments over the years about the validity and significance of rock and roll as an art form. Your writing has a genuine literary quality to it, yet the music on Getaway Car has all the energy and dynamics you'd expect of a great rock album. Do you think in the era of lip-syncing Simpson sisters it's still possible for people to take rock seriously?

A fastball, huh? Well how does one measure validity or significance? The wonderful thing about art -- or any form of communication -- is that the artist (as the artist) never finishes the work. The audience completes it, by combining it with their own emotions and experiences to give it meaning and context. That's where validity is determined, and significance. A friend once described poetry to me as "our attempt to express the inexpressible," a description that I like for any art. There are nuances of emotion, thought and life that elude language, and can only be expressed through granite, or paint, or music. As for rock and roll in particular, I would argue that there's a broad spectrum of my own thoughts and feelings that are only ever truly expressed by rock music, so it's pretty significant to me. On a cultural scale, I think the answer is fluid -- it's going to change every year, as more (or fewer) people listen to rock, and as Dylans and Springsteens come and go. As for seriousness, sure, why not? Artists such as Dylan -- whose work is intelligent, moving, and thought-provoking -- will always be taken seriously by people who seek those qualities. But let's not confuse seriousness with validity. Joy and silliness need avenues for expression, too. Throw on a Sesame Street CD with your kids some time, and play "Mah Na Mah Na." Talk about expressing the inexpressible…

Indeed. At the same time, one of the things I enjoyed about Getaway Car is the concrete details you placed in many of these songs. The strand of cool air in "Circles" comes to mind, as does the child's fall that is the central image of "Cartwheeling." In the latter, the narrator loses his job the same day his son falls down the stairs. How much of that song was good storytelling, and how much was personal experience?

Occasionally I recognize an event or thought as a subject for a possible song. More often I pick up the guitar and open my notebook and write whatever stream-of-consciousness gibberish comes out, allowing my subconscious to do the heavy lifting. But once an idea begins to take the form of a song, it becomes storytelling, and I care less about autobiographical accuracy than getting an idea across. In the case of "Cartwheeling," the two events took place a day apart (the layoffs came on Friday, and my four-year-old fell down a flight of stairs on Saturday). The similarities struck me when I began to write about what had happened. Other songs are less literal. The "Second Time Around" sprang from my attempts to verbalize the differences between raising our first child and our second. But the song was drivel, and the more I wrote, the worse it got. After a frustrating few days, I finally quit fighting it and let it write itself, and ten minutes later I had a song about a man driving to see an old lover after a long separation, which expressed what I had intended all along.


To me that's where the real magic in writing comes from -- recognizing and sketching out the hidden connections between events and feelings and ideas. You do that a lot, and expertly, on Getaway Car. If I had to sum up the ideas and emotions you explore there in a single lyric fragment it would probably be this one, from "Wonderful": "…and at worst it's more / than you can take / and at best it's more / than wonderful." That right there is life in a nutshell, isn't it?

Well, I don't know about "expertly." I think Emmylou Harris set the bar well out of my reach with "The Pearl." "Wonderful" was meant to be about keeping faith-remembering that life's surprises can be positive as well as negative. I've always been a big fan of C.S. Lewis, and the ideas that he explores in books like Perelandra, which is essentially a retelling of the Garden of Eden myth. He felt that most myths have their origin in real events, and the thought of a real Adam and Eve is strangely compelling. What a choice: free will, or eternal health, happiness, and security. I guess the choice between freedom and security is one we have to keep making, over and over… Ironically, I almost decided to leave "Wonderful" off the record, but Bob and the guys talked me into keeping it.

Thank you, Bob and the guys! Speaking of the guys, let's talk about the Rieggers. Your last project was Blue Sandcastle, which was just you plus Erik Schuman on drums for most of the album. What can you tell us about that transition, about the Rieggers' musical background, and about how it changes the dynamics to have a father-and-son rhythm section?

The transition came at a difficult time. Erik and I were both laid off when our respective companies decided to do some downsizing, and Erik made the difficult decision to move back to Texas. He and I have always communicated well, musically, and I'm hopeful we can put another project together some day. But I was pretty crushed to have Blue Sandcastle end so abruptly. I've known Artie and AJ for quite a while -- AJ's sister introduced me to my wife -- and they've played together for years, mostly working the island in various cover bands. Artie gave me a call when he heard that Erik had left, and suggested we try to put something together. The change in dynamics has been huge, and very liberating; adapting to their musical styles has afforded me an opportunity to re-imagine myself as a songwriter, for the better. Artie is a much less aggressive drummer than I was used to, and they both play with a great feel for the songs. We're in a fun place right now, and having an album under our belts is a big confidence booster. As for the father-and-son dynamics, we all get along great. I will say that the back-seat driving is pretty spectacular, especially the discussions about which route to take. I've lived here eight years and still don't know my way around, so I mostly stay out of it…

Heh. Been there, done that… Blue Sandcastle obviously involved a lot of overdubs with you playing both bass and guitar on most of the cuts. To my ears, Getaway Car has a more organic, live feel to it. How much (if any) of the album was cut live in the studio, and how long did the recording process take?

We spent five days recording, and four mixing. All of the bass and drums were cut live, with a low-volume guitar track for reference. Bob Stander -- our engineer -- wanted to mic the room a certain way, to capture the sound of the drums, and we didn't want the guitar to bleed into those tracks. So we overdubbed the guitars, vocals, and organ. We spent some time getting different amp setups for the different guitar tracks. With only a 3-piece band, we didn't want the whole record to have the same sound. The key was that Bob was able to capture some really good tones, so that there was very little manipulation in the mixing process, with compressors and whatnot. I don't think we added reverb to anything, just the natural reverb in the room, and some delay on some of the vocals.

Well, I love the way it came out, very immediate and organic. Alright, one more and we're into the speed round. Last Charge Of The Light Horse: what's the significance of that very unusual name?

I always felt that Blue Sandcastle was too static a name, and I wanted something more dynamic. The name came from a few things. I was born in the Chinese year of the horse, and I grew up riding horses. Also I'm a big fan of George Harrison, and his record label was Dark Horse, so Light Horse seemed like a natural counterpoint. And then that got me thinking about The Charge Of The Light Brigade, and about Peter Weir's movie Gallipoli, which is one of my all-time favorites. Finally, I wanted the name to reflect our roots in some older musical traditions, and the attitude that we don't want to hold anything back, because who knows if we'll get another chance to do this.

Now for the speed round: favorite Replacements album & song?

I think I have to go with Pleased To Meet Me and "Alex Chilton," but "They're Blind" would be a close second.

Any New Year's resolutions, musical or otherwise?

No resolutions per se. But I'm hoping a few good songs will find their way to me.

Last but not least, where do you see the band and the album six months from now?

Hopefully our audience will continue to grow. But our main goals are always oriented towards personal growth: writing better songs, cultivating new ideas, and not allowing the music to stagnate. I would love it if we could head back into the studio a year from now, with a full slate of new perspectives to explore. I've also toyed with the idea of adding a keyboard player to the band, but it would have to be just the right person.

[Editor's note: Many thanks to Jean-Paul Vest for visiting with us. You can visit with him -- and purchase copies of Getaway Car -- at www.lastcharge.com]

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