Jason Webley – We Eat While the Rain Crashes Down

Jason Webley

I met Jason for sushi at Ozumo in Oakland on a rainy, rainy Tuesday before a “secret” show he had just announced at a venue that was closing called 21 Grand. It was a place dear to his heart as it was the original location for the first Monsters of Accordion show. The original “Monsters” gathered for one last, grand night of music together under that roof.
Jason Webley
So although it may seem odd that there are no pictures of food but pictures of accordions in a FoodPorn interview, well, it is…but I was so enjoying my conversation with Jason, I completely forgot to take pictures of our meal!

Chantrelle: So how was the LA show?

Jason: It was really good. It was a little bit quieter. It was a rainy Sunday in Los Angeles so I guess people don’t go out at all.

Chantrelle: People don’t know how to deal with rain down there.

Jason: But we did really well I think.

Chantrelle: It was a really fun show Saturday.

Jason: Thank you

Chantrelle: It was so great. I got a hotel that night so I didn’t have to drive all the way back to Santa Cruz in the crazy storm. I got back to the hotel at 2am and couldn’t go to sleep. I was too amped from the show.

Jason: It was great to be with that group of people. I had never seen Renee [de la Prade] perform solo. I’ve seen her street perform but not onstage. And I’ve seen her with her band. So it was a little bit of a crapshoot how she’d do.

Chantrelle: She did great!

Jason: Yeah. And then the Petrojvic Brothers

Chantrelle: I loved them! New favorite band!

Jason: I hadn’t seen them performing except with a bigger band a year ago. They’re getting so much better, so exponentially fast. Booking them was also a risky thing.
Monsters of Accordion
Chantrelle: The risk definitely paid off.

Jason: Yeah.

Chantrelle: As soon as they finished their set I went and bought their CD. I listened to it on the drive home. I want to get a copy for my mom, she’s a Squirrel Nut Zippers fan so I think she’d really like them. There’s a huge similarity. That was so fun.

The waitress comes up to talk about menu and specials. Jason and I are both put off by the complicated and trendy approach to the sushi. We had to go out of our way to order simple rolls…just fish and rice…without sauces or crazy colorful toppings. Their special roll for the night was designed for and named after an Oakland A’s player. Yes, seriously.

Jason: I usually like really simple sushi.

Chantrelle: Yes, this seems to be a really hip and trendy downtown thing. Do you usually get sashimi or rolls?

Jason: I usually get rolls and a couple of pieces of nigiri. Fancy rolls scare me. They usually put weird sauces and stuff that I don’t get.

Chantrelle: When I was out Saturday night, we left it up to the waitress. “We’re talking, we’re hungry, just bring us food.” She brought out things I never would have ordered. A couple of things had spicy sauce and I wouldn’t have ordered those but they were still good.

Jason: I like the spicy sauces usually but it’s weird when they start putting mayonnaise-y stuff on them.

Chantrelle: They’re calling it aioli here to make it sound like it’s not mayonnaise but it is.

The waitress returns for our order. We struggle to get the simple things we want. Sashimi starter plate, edamame that’s just warm w/ salt—not sautéed with garlic and soy! A couple of orders of sashimi and tekka maki. Sushi shouldn’t be this hard to order! Then we dive right into the FoodPorn questions.

Chantrelle: What’s your best childhood food memory?

Jason: I don’t know. I think you’d have to narrow it down, like, name some food. Does that make sense?

Chantrelle: You don’t have some sort of…

Jason: …amazing thing that happened with food?

Chantrelle: No..no, like, one of mine is sitting in the garden in the back yard eating peas straight off the vine. Just a fond memory of childhood that you have that involves food.

Jason: The first thing that came to mind was this dish that I haven’t had since I was a kid that my parents used to make. I always assumed it was this standard dish that people ate everywhere. It was called “Broadway Joe.” I don’t remember much about it except that it had spinach in it, and I think ground beef. I’m a vegetarian now so I don’t eat Broadway Joe anymore but I don’t even know what it was. It drifted away from what my parents ever made but I really loved that when I was a kid. If anyone ever comes up with a vegetarian Broadway Joe…

Chantrelle: It probably wouldn’t be the same with the soy-meat substitute.

Jason: No. I do remember eating fresh peas off the vine in my grandfather’s garden too.

Chantrelle: I also remember…the skill that I didn’t inherit, my mom made a lot of pastry things. Cream puffs, pies. I can’t make a pie to save my life.

Jason: One of my grandmothers I think actually had a candy shop for a while. She was kind of famous throughout the family for making these sweets. Everyone raved over them. For me though, even as a kid, they were kind of too sweet. My dad laments about her fudge being gone but it was the most sweet stuff you could imagine from how I remember it. But I really liked peanut brittle and caramely things. I had some of her peanut brittle but I don’t think I ever had any of her caramel. There was this lore about it. At a certain age I decided I wanted to learn to be a candy maker. I had some recipe books and I started experimenting with making caramel. I did probably 10 different experiments, all with this same recipe, but because I didn’t have the right stuff and because I was a little kid, the results were impressively varying from one batch to the next. I’d cook up one batch and it would never harden, it would just be this runny gooey mess. Another batch would just turn into a rock that you couldn’t bite, it was almost impenetrable. I think somewhere along the way I made a batch that was actually chewy, nice caramel. But the most amazing batch, it seemed perfect. It was the perfect color, the right texture. You’d put it in your mouth and be like, “Ohhh” but as you would chew on it, it would harden and become like a rock. It started off creamy and soft and as you chewed on it it would solidify and you wouldn’t be able to pull your teeth apart. Whatever terrible tooth-cement candy you’ve ever encountered, this was…I mean…I remember having to wait until it pretty much completely dissolved before I could move my teeth. I wish I could perfect that. What a great gift! To give those out on Halloween.

Chantrelle: It sounds like something from Harry Potter, the trick candies.

Jason: If only I’d kept better notes.

Chantrelle: There’s some temperature variation that will produce that result that someone has to figure out. The candy thermometer is vital.

Jason: I didn’t have one of those. I had a turkey thermometer that I kept dipping in it.

Chantrelle: That’s the part of baking I don’t like. It’s too precise. I don’t like to measure. I don’t like to pay attention to temperatures. It’s not my thing. We just recently decided that since I cook, my husband makes alcoholic things (beer, mead, cider), that our son should become a pastry chef. He thought it was a great idea when he found out he’d get to make cakes and cookies all the time.

What’s your favorite comfort food?

Jason: Miso soup actually. Not sure it’s my favorite but it’s way up there.

Chantrelle: I eat it when I’m sick so it is comforting.

Jason: When else do you want a comfort food other than when you’re sick? When I think of comfort food I think of being a little bit sick.

Chantrelle: Sometimes you just need something to mellow you out, curl up with a blanket and relax. Or when it’s cold and rainy outside.

Jason: I’ve been traveling with little packets of miso soup.

Chantrelle: Nice. It’s good that it’s convenient as well.

What do you want your last meal to be?

Jason: Late….Rescheduled…A surprise.

Chantrelle: Really? A surprise?

Jason: I don’t know. I think maybe my perspective will shift. There are people who want to die with full consciousness. And I, in a way, want to die with full consciousness. You go back and forth. A peaceful death in your sleep seems kind of appealing but also it’s a big important part of this particular ride we’re on. Perhaps it would be interesting and important to be present for that part of the ride rather than sleep through it. Knowing what my last meal would be means a certain amount of awareness of my fate. A surprise would mean…I feel like one of the big parts of life that makes it so fascinating is there are these huge things we never know about….that being kind of the biggest one. I think because I love this life, I approve of that and therefore would like my last meal to be a surprise.

Chantrelle: I love how everybody’s answers to that are so different.

Jason: What’s one of the most interesting answers?

Chantrelle: They’re all interesting.

Jason: Do most people have a meal?

Chantrelle: Alan Anton from the Cowboy Junkies didn’t want to think about the death part. He wanted me to change it so that you’re being shot into space and it’s your last meal with Earth food. I was at the French Laundry with Mark Van Name and we were having such an incredible meal, he basically said that would do. Everyone has a different way they want to think about it.

Jason: I figure there’s two answers to the question. One is an answer and the other is avoiding an answer.

Chantrelle: And actually, Alan Anton said he really needed to think about it and plan it all with wine pairings and everything but he never sent me the meal.

Jason: He’s still working on that. He’s been spending hours every day revising and tweaking.

Chantrelle: It’s been a year and a half. It’s an important decision though. Someone may actually refer to it.

Jason: He’s worried that once you have the meal planned…

Chantrelle: I may make it come true?

Jason: It would be pretty creepy.

Chantrelle: To make him the meal? Show up at his house with the whole thing?

Jason: Or have someone show up at the house. A group of people presenting him with course after course.

Chantrelle: Wow, I never thought about that. That would be really, really cool. That’s something I’d have to do for someone like Amanda [Palmer]. She’s already planned her death a million ways, she’d just roll with it…maybe photograph it.

It’s your turn to cook dinner. What’s your favorite thing to make?

Jason: I have only a couple of things that I make. I make borscht. I steam artichokes. I make pasta where I modify some already existing sauce by adding more vegetables…It’s usually a vodka sauce. And a salad. Usually a meal from Jason is a combination of some of those things. When I’m really ambitious you’ll know because I will have made all of them. And maybe some soft cheese.

Chantrelle: You go all out.

Jason: Totally crazy. And pomegranates.

Chantrelle: My dad has 7 acres of pomegranate trees.

Jason: Where is this? The artichokes?

Chantrelle: Central California.

Jason: Not artichokes, pomegranates. Artichokes and pomegranates live in very similar parts of my brain.

Chantrelle: Hard to eat?

Jason: No, they vie for the position of world’s sexiest food.

Chantrelle: Really? That’s one of my next questions.

I don’t think Jason believed me. He grabbed my note cards and checked out what was next…It was.

Chantrelle: It’s usually my last question because it’s “the” food porn question. Why artichoke? I can see pomegranate but I don’t get artichoke.

Jason: In my world, the artichoke has defeated the pomegranate.

Chantrelle: Really?
Jason: They’re both delicious. They’re both process foods….not processed, but process foods. You don’t just eat it, you have to kind of slow down and eat the thing. And over the course of eating it the experience changes and that’s wherein I think the artichoke defeats the pomegranate. I think that they’re great because they just are what they are. You don’t have to do anything special. The artichoke is. The pomegranate just is.

The greatest moment of the pomegranate, sadly, is the very first moment. Almost more satisfying than the taste is that first moment when you break it apart and it makes that “crkkk” sound and the little bits of juice hit your face. That’s sexy. It’s a sexy moment. But as you get farther in and eat it, I mean, I think it’s great. And the way that pomegranate interacts with dark chocolate…not eating them at the exact same time but if you saturate your mouth with one flavor then the other, it’s pretty amazing. The problem with the pomegranate is that the bitterness of the seeds has a cumulative effect. You can’t really even make it through a quarter of the way into a pomegranate before your enthusiasm has kind of waned.

I wouldn’t say for sure that if I give you artichokes I’m trying to seduce you but there’s a strong possibility.

Chantrelle: And it’s a lot of work.

Jason: It’s a lot of work and the rewards don’t shift. With the artichoke, the bitterest leaves are on the outside. It’s always a little bit of a mystery as to what is going to happen as you go in. No two artichokes are really the same. Sometimes they’re really generous. Sometimes they’re a little more reserved. As you undress the artichoke, it takes time and you learn more about it. Whatever it is it gets richer and richer and at the end is this explosive reward.

Chantrelle: You get the heart.

Jason: You get the heart…yeah.

Chantrelle: That is a perfect FoodPorn description.

Jason: I wouldn’t say for sure that if I give you artichokes I’m trying to seduce you but there’s a strong possibility.

Chantrelle: I never would have put those things together but now it seems so obvious.
Jason: I was disappointed, Isabel Allende wrote a book about foods as aphrodisiacs [called Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses] and it had only about half a page dedicated to vegetables and the artichoke wasn’t even mentioned…I don’t think…maybe I’m wrong.

I checked this out, there are about 3 pages of vegetables and the artichoke has a small paragraph:

“Of a person who goes from love affair to love affair it is said that he (or she) has a ‘heart like and artichoke,’ scattering leaves right and left. This vegetable is eaten with fingers, slowly; there is something ritualistic about the process of stripping the artichoke, removing its leaves one by one to dip them in a dressing of oil, lemon, salt, and pepper and share them with your lover.”

So apparently Jason’s not alone in this thinking.

Our sushi arrives.

Chantrelle: If you were forced to eat food from only one region or country for the rest of your life, where would you choose? Breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Jason: I would pick a region rather than a country and say Southeast Asia. Then I can enjoy a lot of nice stuff. I really love Vietnamese food and of course Thai food, Indonesian, Malaysian. I feel like it’s cheating.

Chantrelle: It is cheating. You have to narrow it down.

Jason: Southeast Asia I think most people would qualify as a region.

Chantrelle: It’s totally cheating. I’m always torn between Japan and Italy.

Jason: If I had to pick one I might jump out of Southeast Asia and go to Japan.

Chantrelle: The problem I have with Japan is there are no tomatoes and no porcini mushrooms.

Jason: I lived in Japan for a few months. When you say breakfast, lunch and dinner…I don’t eat a lot of sweet stuff. I wake up and I kind of want lunch for breakfast. So the fact that in Japan breakfast is pretty much what you’re eating for dinner but a kind of lighter presentation…

Chantrelle: I like that too. I’ve never been to Japan but I stayed in a hotel in Honolulu that had a buffet breakfast where half of it was an American breakfast and the other half was Japanese. It was great, I had miso soup and rice and salmon for breakfast. It was fantastic. Not pancakes of French toast or runny scrambled eggs.

Jason: Why would you eat that stuff in the morning? You want something that’s going to give you energy and not make you want to fall asleep. Pancakes? What kind of culture do we have?

Chantrelle: Although, I do make a mean waffle. It’s the closest I come to baking. It’s the only thing I measure. But I don’t put syrup on them, I put fruit and unsweetened whipped cream.

Jason: Wow, you’re even harder against the sweetness than I am.

Chantrelle: I’m not against maple syrup, I just don’t like it on my waffles. I like it on French toast.

I’m a supertaster so, to quote They Might Be Giants, “sweet things taste far more sweet.”

Jason: But salty isn’t far more salty?

Chantrelle: Oh no, I love salt. I’m a total saltaholic.

Jason: I have that problem.

Chantrelle: It’s not a problem! Have you been to The Meadow in Portland?

Jason: No. Is it all these weird crazy salts infused with truffle oil?

Chantrelle: No, well, they may have some of that. But it’s just different salts. It’s a small shop and one wall is chocolate, one wall is wine and one wall is all salt…with flowers in the middle of the shop. Hundreds of salts from all over the world that have different minerals, different flakiness, different crystallization.

Jason: Can you taste the difference in all the salts?

Chantrelle: You can. Some you actually do taste different flavors but with many it’s about the rate at which they dissolve, they way they coat your tongue. Some are pyramid crystals that have a distinct crunch. Some are a really fine flake that taste really, really salty because it’s so fine and covers your mouth more.

I met the guy who runs the shop at a Salt and Chocolate tasting event. Have you been to Recchiuti chocolate here in San Francisco? By far my favorite chocolate. (I go on to tell Jason about my love of Recchiuti and the event where I met Mark Bitterman of the Meadow. I wrote an article about that here). Everytime I go to these taste events I never get what I’m expecting. That’s how I discovered the Meadow. It’s the ultimate salt experience.

Jason: That sounds awesome. I was just in Portland but I was pretty busy.

Chantrelle: I love Portland. It’s one of my favorite places. We have a ton of friends there but I like the weather down here better. Santa Cruz has spoiled me.
It is just big enough to have good food and get some music but small enough that…I came from a little town, I can’t deal with cities, I feel overwhelmed and scattered. We’ve got little places like the Crepe Place…I can’t believe we’re not going to be home for your show there! I could walk there from my house! We’re going to be in Sydney.

As soon as we booked our tickets they announced the Dresden Dolls show in San Francisco. I don’t want to not go to Sydney but I want to do both!

Jason: It’ll be what it’ll be.

Chantrelle: True, I just can’t believe how many things are happening here that I want to go to while we’re gone. I know we’ll have a blast. I LOVE Sydney, absolutely love it. I just wish I could be in two places at once. I do love Amanda.

Jason: She seems to turn up.

Chantrelle: Last time I saw Neil [Gaiman] he said, “You know, you should interview Amanda for FoodPorn.” Brilliant! I’ve been trying to do that for two years!

Jason: I’m sure she’d be happy to do it. It’s just a pity you’ll be gone while she’s here for three days.

Chantrelle: I know!!

Jason: So, you’ve seen me before just on Evelyn Evelyn tour?

Chantrelle: No, I saw you first at Slim’s when you played with the Phenomenauts. I saw you at the Crepe Place. Which was a strange and odd show. Not your part but the opening band was awful.

Jason: This time will be better. Blackbird Raum are quite known in the post-punky world now and they’re from Santa Cruz and one of the guys from the band is doing a solo project and he’ll be opening.

Chantrelle: I saw both Evelyn Evelyn shows at Great American Music Hall.

Jason: That’s too bad.

Chantrelle: Why? I thought they were great!

Jason: I couldn’t imagine going two nights in a row when they were so the same.

Chantrelle: They were similar but the crowd was really different.

Jason: I think the first night was better. There were only a few of those shows that I felt really great about. Seattle was really good. Minneapolis was really good. And DC.

Chantrelle: It was so fun, just such a unique idea…the whole project. I know it got off to a bad start, even before the record was out which seemed really ridiculous. I never understood how people thought that Evelyn Evelyn were real people.

Jason: We made a few tactical errors. In retrospect I definitely saw how it snowballed. There were a couple of early warning signs that we could have taken cues from but we didn’t. And the next few things that were broadcast were full of all sorts of little landmines to make that thing explode. Then when it started boiling over, a few more stupid things were said so…I was freaking out and miserable.

Chantrelle: Awww! It’s such a shame because it was such a cool project and, like I said, such a unique undertaking. I enjoyed it. My son loved it…well, he can’t listen to the whole album…but he put Elephant Elephant on his birthday CD. I wanted to get his first grade class to sing it. If his class ever does that song I think we have to change the “you’re sad and in a cage but that’s irrelevant” line.

Jason: Originally one of the lyrics was: [Jason sings] “See me riding by with this beast between my thighs” but Amanda made me change that.

Chantrelle: I would have thought it was the other way around and you made her change it.

Jason: It’s funny, in a lot of ways I’m more conservative. But there were a number of ribald lyrics that I proposed and she was like, “That’s gross.”

Chantrelle: This coming from the woman who just released “Map of Tasmania.”

Jason: I know. Whenever I collaborate with someone I feel certain freedoms. In my own work I’d never do that but with her…

Chantrelle: My son can listen to all of your music, he can’t listen to any of Amanda’s!

Jason: When working with her…I felt like I was…I don’t know…maybe that’s what bothered her about it. I still sing it that way occasionally when I sing it by myself.

And he did perform Elephant Elephant that night with the ‘beast’ line. I was in hysterics.

At this point we still haven’t gotten the rest of our fish and are getting really pressed for time.

Jason: This is also partly a restaurant review?

Chantrelle: Sometimes.

Jason: [to the microphone] “Don’t come here”

Chantrelle: When I went to the French Laundry with Mark Van Name it was more about the food than the interview. I felt bad when I wrote it up but I couldn’t stop talking about the food.

Jason: What is the French Laundry?

Chantrelle: One of the best restaurants in the country! It’s near Napa, in Yountville. Impossible to get reservations, insanely expensive, but if you’re a foodie, you have to go there at least once in your life. A five-hour meal. (I go on to tell Jason about eating there but you can read about my two visits here and here.)

Chantrelle: I feel bad, I’m making you late.

Jason: You’re not making me late, Ozumo sushi is making me late. Sorry I’m a little bit quiet for this interview. I’m a little bit tired and I was kind of losing my voice the last few days. I’ve been tending towards mime. I should have warned you I’d be miming the interview.

Chantrelle: I’ve been a zombie since Saturday night’s show. I can’t go without sleep. I could never be a rock star, I need sleep…that and I have no musical talent.

Jason: I’ve been going to bed around 4am, waking up around 6. I’m an early riser generally. The beginning of the tour I was getting up around 7 or so and going to bed around 3 or 4. That kind of caught up to me around the time of the show here. My voice wasn’t as strong at the show here. Could you tell that?

Chantrelle: Only when you pointed it out and had the audience since a high note for you. I wouldn’t have noticed it if you didn’t draw attention to it.

Last night at my son’s winter concert I found out this teacher at his school that I’ve had many conversations with plays the accordion! I’m so excited. My son wants to learn to play accordion. He wants that to be his next instrument. I’m pushing piano first, we have a 9 foot grand piano, it should get some use!

Jason: Josh started playing accordion when he was 9.

Chantrelle: I think you need a little more arm strength than you have at 6.

Jason: By 15 he had run away from home to play on the streets. He’s a guy who really grabs life by the reigns right out of the gate. I’m really impressed with him. And he has a sweetness and a quietness about him. Most people who are that driven and ambitious are missing that. Especially if they’re driven and ambitious that early.

I love the way my life has shaped. I can’t imagine a nicer type of a life. But watching him, it’s like, “Holy shit, wow.”

Chantrelle: I was just talking with a friend the other day about how since discovering you and Amanda, my outlook on street performing and busking has changed. I never thought of that as a job or a way of making a living. Hearing someone play on the street wasn’t the same to me as seeing someone in a club even though sometimes the street performer may have more talent. I know I’m not the first to realize this but why will I pay $50 to someone play at a theatre, but I won’t give a dollar to someone on the street? Especially if they’re doing something cool. There was a guy downtown one day playing the uillean pipes, he was awesome. He got my money.

The bill finally comes.

Thanks for making the time to talk with me.

And we were off to the show, it was a great night. I’ve adored Jason’s music since I first discovered him via Neil Gaiman. Seeing him live is a life-changing experience. I’ve seen artists who can enthrall an audience, Jason goes beyond that. I’ve not only seen him get the entire audience to spin in circles 12 times (a staple of his show for “Drinking Song”) but I’ve seen him get everyone to sit down and listen to a story and on the night of this interview, he got the whole audience to tickle each other. He’s a special and magical individual on and off the stage. I am thrilled I got to spend this time talking with him.