”Where are all the young bands?“ asks Jigsaw Seen lead guitarist Jonathan Lea, laughing as he scans the L.A. Weekly Music Awards’ ”Best PopRock Band“ nominations. ”The Negro Problem, the Januaries, Sugarplastic, Candypants — they‘re all like late 30s, early 40s.“
”Of course, we’re in our late 20s,“ deadpans vocalist Dennis Davison, who began his musical career nearly 20 years ago in his home state of Maryland. ”I was actually 11 when I started playing in bands, but I said I was 12 in order to get into Baltimore bars. That‘s just for beer and wine; you had to be 13 for hard liquor.“
The Jigsaw Seen has indeed been around awhile. Davison and Lea first met in 1986, when the former moved to L.A. with a band called the Playground and placed an ad in the Recycler for a lead guitarist into ”Turtles, Hollies, folk rock.“ After enduring the usual lineup troubles, Davison and Lea split the Playground in 1989, and started over with the Jigsaw Seen.
”We go back so far that the main format was vinyl when our first two records came out,“ says Lea. ”I remember that it was a big deal for Skyclad, our label at the time, to release Shortcut Through Clown Alley [the band’s 1990 debut] on CD.“
”We really had to fight for it,“ adds Davison. ”The record company was like, ‘Why do you want to release something on CD? It’s a gimmick!‘“ Like so many flourishing indie labels of the late ’80s and early ‘90s, Skyclad has long since disappeared from the market. The Jigsaw Seen, on the other hand, is doing better than ever — Zenith, a new album released on the band’s own Vibro-phonic imprint, has racked up raves on both sides of the Atlantic, and was even nominated for a ”Best Packaging“ Grammy. (It lost, predictably, to Madonna‘s Music.) Davison and Lea recently wrapped up a two-week acoustic tour of Great Britain, some of which was recorded for Perfformiad I Mewn Cymru (Performance in Wales), a limited-edition six-song live CD due out in August. In addition, a previously unreleased track, ”David Hart’s Name of Song,“ is slated for inclusion in an upcoming documentary on Christian Science puppeteer David Unger Hart. Not bad for a band that, before Zenith, hadn‘t released more than a handful of compilation tracks in nearly a decade.
”We didn’t mean for it to be that long,“ says Lea of the nine-year break between My Name Is Tom, the band‘s 1991 EP, and the release of Zenith. ”In ’93, we recorded an acoustic EP for Skyclad, but they went out of business.“
”We actually had an album ready at one point,“ says Davison, ”but we never put it out. We kept waiting for someone to knock on our door, and the knock never came.“
Small wonder, considering that, in the Chili Peppers–mad L.A. music scene of the early ‘90s, the Jigsaw Seen’s dark and jangly strain of psychedelic guitar pop was about as welcome as a leper at a Jacuzzi party. ”We got an article in BAM about 10 years ago,“ Lea remembers, ”and the writer never even mentioned anything about our music — he just said that we didn‘t wear shorts or backwards baseball caps. We were so weird to these people, he had no idea what to even compare us to. At our shows, people would be like, ’Are you guys into Men Without Hats?‘“
In 1995, Davison and Lea began paring their live performances down to a minimum, and turned their attention to the making of what would eventually become Zenith. Recorded primarily with bassist David Nolte and drummer Teddy Freese, the album’s 11 tracks are a melodic psych-pop feast, making their own fun from stray bits of Big Star, the early Bee Gees, the Yardbirds, Love and early Bowie. The record is also incredibly cohesive, considering that it took a whopping four years to finish. ”Zenith cost like 12 grand to record,“ says Lea. ”Me and Dennis paid for it out of our own pockets. We‘d track in the middle of the night in a state-of-the-art studio, we’d get deals; but still, we could get in the studio only when we‘d scraped up the money.“
Remarkably, the time, effort and expenditures have all paid off. ”It never occurred to us that we could just do it ourselves,“ says Lea, just as it never occurred to him that he and Davison might someday gaze in person upon the freakish spectacle of Leeza Gibbons in Grammy Night makeup. (”She looked like Zal Cleminson of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band,“ marvels Davison.)
”Now, we think that anything’s possible,“ Lea continues, with only the slightest perceptible trace of sarcasm. ”We just need to make sure that stuff keeps coming out, instead of waiting nine or 10 years until the next record!“