Jacob Norman Chainsaw-Arm Interview
We recently had the chance to talk with Jacob Newman of Jacob Norman Chainsaw-Arm. Jacob makes amazing folk punk songs and has also been working hard to write a song about every Pokémon. Don’t miss an early acoustic version of his song “Better Off” above and the full interview below:
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hello, my name is Jacob! I work as a Mechanical Engineer by day and by night I don a mask and cape and fight super villains as Jacob Norman Chainsaw-Arm. I also use that name to release music sometimes. Otherwise, I’m just a huge nerd who plays Dungeons and Dragons and follows competitive Pokémon.
What’s a time when you realized how much music meant to you?
There have been countless times when music has melted my heart. One moment that really hit me hard was the first time I watched Florist's Tiny Desk Concert. I had only listened to their "6 days of songs" demos before that point. While I was obsessed with those demos for an entire summer, I was not expecting such lush and gorgeous textures from a live performance. Those sounds combined with Emily's amazing lyrics made such a stellar combination.
I also have some honorable mentions since it is very hard for me to pick just one:
-Watching Nana Grizol perform live for the first time at a bar in Philadelphia
-Watching Ragnar Kjartansson's art piece “The Visitors” at The Hirshorn
-Spending countless hours hanging out in my college's radio station with some of my best friends
Best show you’ve ever played?
I have very fond memories of the first basement show I ever played. I played as Jacob Norman Chainsaw-Arm on a bill with Billy Mack Collector, Spoonboy, and some other great local acts. A small group of my friends came to support me but it was also my first time performing my songs to people who I didn't really know. Everyone was super positive and kind and I remember people playfully tossing balloons in the air as I played my songs. At the end of the show, a cake was brought out for someone's birthday and their face got smushed into the frosting. I met a lot of great people that night and it was kind of my first non-internet introduction to the DIY music community. (Fun fact: Billy’s future partner also played that show and their set was amazing and it was just a really magical night!)
Describe your creative process.
My creative process wildly varies depending on what I'm working on but I guess I can generalize it to the following:
1) Write down and/or record every idea I have. This could be a single lyric, a chord progression, or a vague concept.
2) Organize these ideas so I can find them easily. Sometimes they will lie dormant for years.
3) When I’m feeling particularly inspired I will pick up an old idea from one of these files. I’ll specifically look for something that matches my current mood.
4) I’ll try to turn that idea into a song by recording lots of verses and alternate choruses. These versions can sometimes get to be about an hour long and they always stink.
5) I listen to these drafts and write down the verses and choruses I like. I’ll keep on editing until I get to something I’m satisfied with.
6) From here the writing process is complete so next I work on the recording process. Recording for me basically boils down to constantly iterating. I’ll just keep adding and subtracting elements until I feel like I’ve exhausted all options for this song. Hopefully by the end of it, I have a version I’m happy with.
How do you feel your music has evolved?
I think I’ve become competent with new instruments and I’m also taking more risks with my writing. I’ve become more interested in textures the past few years and I’ve wanted to bring something new to the table from that perspective. For Heartburn64, I wanted to tackle these ideas but I also wanted to make the album completely by myself. I was only able to do that because of my relatively new skills with chiptune composition, banjo, keyboard, and accordion. A few years ago I would not have had any idea how to make something like this and I certainly would not have had the instinct to combine such dissimilar sounds. Nowadays though, I just want to push myself and see what happens! I’m significantly less afraid to make something that I will just throw away if I don’t like it.
How are the Pokemon songs going?
They are going well, thanks for asking! They have been a very exciting way to prevent myself from ever getting writers block. I can never say that I have nothing to write about because I now have about 800 separate prompts.
I’m almost at 190 songs and when I hit 200 I’ll release the second volume on my bandcamp. I’m not quite sure when that will be as I’ve been writing them very sporadically. I’ll sometimes go a month or more without touching the project and then finish two songs in a day.
Favorite Pokemon? Favorite song you’ve written about a pokemon?
My current favorite Pokémon is Altaria. Just look at it. I don’t believe I need to explain myself further.
I have a very tough time picking my favorite Pokésong because I try to make them all very distinct. I’m gonna cheat a little bit and pick three songs.
Deoxys is one of the best pop songs I’ve ever helped make.
Woobat is one of my cutest songs so far.
Finally, Honedge contains my best use of steel drums and ominous slide whistle.
Song you are particularly proud of or like best (not necessarily about a Pokémon)?
These questions are so hard! I’m particularly proud of my song “Better Off.” I think it has some of my better lyrics to date and I spent a long time tweaking the words to try to communicate a particular set of thoughts and emotions. I also worked very methodically to write the chiptune backing tracks for that one and I’m very satisfied with how it turned out sonically.
What was on your iPod in high school?
Every song by the band Cake. I was obsessed with them. My favorite song was “Ain’t No Good.”
I also had Jack Johnson, OK Go, The Gorillaz, The Beatles, Vic Thrill, and the soundtrack to the anime FLCL. My sister was a radio DJ at her college when I was in high school so she’d also burn me these awesome mixes with Of Montreal, Linus of Hollywood and lots of other music that I thought was the coolest.
Around the end of high school is when I discovered AJJ and Nana Grizol. I didn’t fully immerse myself in that music until college but I know I had “Ruth” and “People That Can Eat People Are The Luckiest People In The World” on my ipod my senior year of high school.
Perfect song length?
Do you see yourself in relation to a certain scene or community of music? If so, how has this influenced your music?
I like to think that I’m a part of the DIY folk punk community as well as the general Lehigh Valley music scene. (I live in the Lehigh Valley, by the way.) I made a lot of fantastic friendships through both of these communities and I’m incredibly grateful for that.
These friendships have exposed me to lots of new art and philosophies which have definitely had a big impact on me. I’ve learned everything from new political concepts to helpful DIY recording techniques. I don’t know how specifically I’ve been affected by these communities but I hope they have made me a more thoughtful and compassionate person. I also think these communities have inspired me to be more open with my lyrical content and both scenes have continually offered me a place to share my music as well as discover other great artists.
I’m also answering these questions soon after finding out that Chris Clavin (a prominent part of the greater DIY Folk Punk scene) is a sexual predator. A community is only as positive as its individual members. Every community has problems and an individual can cause great harm within a scene. What Chris did was reprehensible and my heart goes out to his victims. I still really believe in the powerful and positive effects of these communities and to the extent to which I am a part of either scene, I hope that I can be a positive force.
What do you hope people take away from your music?
When I’m writing I typically never think about this. For the past few years I have been using songwriting as a creative outlet for myself. While my “real” job is very technical, I also have a lot of creative energy that I want to turn into tangible things whether that is doodles in my sketchbook or a song about charmander.
That doesn’t really answer your question, though. I guess I would be happiest if my music can make an emotional connection with someone.
What’s next for Jacob Norman Chainsaw-Arm?
A song for every Digimon.
That was a joke.
My next big thing will be releasing Pokésongs Vol 2 (100 More Songs). I will probably end up having that ready in a couple months if not sooner. I think that this batch of songs is more polished and diverse than Vol 1 so I’m very excited to have it be complete. After that I’m not quite sure what will be next. I’m toying around with the idea of rerecording some of my older songs in the chiptune style of Heartburn64 but I’m not sure how that would work and how I would want to release it. I’m sure I’ll also write a new non-pokémon JNCA album at some point but I have no clue what that will sound like or when that would be done. I’m excited about that idea though! One of the best things about having a DIY project is that I can figure it out as I go.
Amanda Glazer is Online Content Director and a DJ for Record Hospital