For the past decade, Los Angeles musician Jonathan Snipes has created ridiculous party music under the moniker Captain Ahab. For much of that time, his hype man, Jim Merson, has gyrated by his side in a Speedo egging on reluctant crowds. In 2006 the band released After the Rain My Heart Still Dreams, featuring their signature song “Girls Gone Wild” — which popped after Michael Scott sat alone in a hotel room listening to it on The Office. Then, two years ago, Snipes dropped his magnum opus, the utterly ridiculous and indescribable The End of Irony, featuring my favorite Captain Ahab song, “Acting Hard.” They even won a contest to have their song “Snakes on the Brain” play during the credits of Snakes on a Plane.
Later tonight, Captain Ahab will play its final show ever, at the venue they’ve called home all these years, The Smell in Los Angeles. I recently caught up with Snipes via phone for the following interview. I learned, simply, it was time for him to move on, and he’s ready for the change.
Geek: Why was it time for Captain Ahab to call it quits?
JONATHAN SNIPES: Well, I’ve been doing a lot of other stuff. This has been the first year that I’ve felt like all of my other projects weren’t taking away time that I would be spending on Captain Ahab. As I was working on other stuff I would always feel as though what I should be doing creatively was working on Captain Ahab music. This year, everything else I was doing felt like it took precedent. Any time I would have to work on Captain Ahab stuff, it felt like Captain Ahab was taking time away from stuff I really wanted to work on. And it’s not like Captain Ahab ever really became successful, at least financially successful in a way that would justify me continuing to do it when it wasn’t fun anymore. That would have been a justification for me to continue to do it even if I didn’t necessarily find it fulfilling anymore—or finding a way to force it to become fulfilling. Or changing it, but still using the Captain Ahab name. I just felt like I was getting tired of writing music that fell into the Captain Ahab world. It didn’t make any sense to change it to the point that it wasn’t Captain Ahab anymore.
Did Captain Ahab ever seem like it might become a career?
Every time we did a tour or a record, it always felt bigger than it did before. The opportunities were always continuing. It was more exciting. We were doing bigger things, playing bigger shows. A couple years ago that kind of plateaued, and I started to realize what we were doing was so specific, and for a specific audience—I don’t think Captain Ahab was ever destined to become popular in the way that a band has to be popular for it to become a career. I’ve made some money off Captain Ahab—mostly through licensing—but it’s not as accessible as it could be. Because Captain Ahab really started as a pseudonym for me, any music I was making at all was just Captain Ahab music. Jonathan music and Captain Ahab music were the same thing, so it really had this sort of unfocused cloud of styles, not really any clear, branded visual identity until maybe a couple years ago. I started to make choices: this is appropriate for Captain Ahab. This is not. But then there’s 10 years of incongruous baggage to drag behind Captain Ahab even though it becomes clearer. It’s almost like I spent eleven years in Captain Ahab figuring out how I should be in a band. I don’t know what I’m doing next, really, but whatever it is, it shouldn’t be called Captain Ahab.
I know you’ve worked on Clipping recently. Can you talk about how that project came about?
My good friend Bill Hutson, who records as Rale, he and I do a lot of music together, he and I were talking about beat-less rap music for a really long time. He had a project with Kyle Mabson called Beach Balls. I wouldn’t call it a comedy noise project almost—but I really liked Beach Balls. On one of their albums they did a track that was a remix of “Wait (The Whisper Song)” by Ying Yang Twins. It was just clicks. Just rhythmic popping. Super minimal. Just one, high pitched tone that would come in and out. It was incredibly minimal. Sort of a “lowercase” remix of Ying Yang Twins. You know, that song was entirely whispered. It was just the greatest, best thing. I listened to it so many times and finally—based off of Beach Balls, because I’d never heard anything like that — I just said (to Bill) “Let’s start that band!” Let’s do that, where that is like the tip of a huge iceberg of music. A lot people are doing noise and rap together, or throwing pop samples into a harsh noise freakout without a lot of precision. We both had been talking a lot about a project where it was really intentional and really precise and really specific. We did a handful of tracks taking existing a cappellas and making new beats for them but with no drums and no pitch. Then our friend Daveed Diggs, who’s a phenomenal rapper, moved down to LA from Oakland. We played him some stuff and he got really excited and we got really excited about the idea of playing original songs, and that’s how it happened.
I read an interview with you where you were talking about The End of Irony, and how you made peace with your love of highbrow and lowbrow music. Will that balance make its way into Clipping?
I don’t know that those labels really apply to Clipping as well. Clipping is very referential. I felt like I was making the high/low judgment call in Captain Ahab a lot and hopefully we’re not doing that in Clipping. As much. We’re referencing things that we love, but not necessarily calling attention to disparate elements, we’re just trying to write songs that are good. The kind of music based on what we like.
Do you feel like you went out on top of the Captain Ahab Creativity scale?
I knew where it was going next. I had the next album written, but I think the reception to and the popularity of The End of Irony sort of told me what would happen next. The problem is not that I don’t have ideas for what to do for Captain Ahab. I have tons of ideas. The problem is how much I will enjoy actually making those ideas. At a certain point, ideas that felt appropriate for Captain Ahab were not what I wanted to spend my time on. The material was getting so dense and so complex that it demanded a lot of my time. I loved doing The End of Irony, but the idea of putting that much of my time and effort into something that didn’t feel like a brand new idea, I didn’t really see the point. It’s kind of a shitty thing to say, but I’m sure if more people had bought The End of Irony I would have felt more justified in continuing. I kind of felt like the couple thousand people in the world that really like Captain Ahab, I don’t feel like it’s fair to them to keep doing it until no one likes Captain Ahab, you know. Or to let it trickle away. It felt good to put a final page in the book and call it a day.
Could you pick one particular highlight of your Captain Ahab career?
You know, I couldn’t pick one particular moment or opportunity. The best thing that has come out of Captain Ahab and the best reason to make music and to tour music is just how big it makes your world. I have so many friends all over the world. I’ve seen so much of the world at very little cost to myself, when you compare the cost of personal vacations with our tours. Not that they ever made money, but they at least approached breaking even in the way a vacation never does. My world is so big now and I have so many great friends who come to L.A. sometimes. I know people in pretty much every city in the U.S. at this point and so many other people throughout the world. It was because of this very silly band that some people liked. It’s a really amazing community I became a part of. It’s the best reason to make music people you like will like.
Was there a lowest point?
We were pretty lucky on our tours. We didn’t seem to have too many terrible situations. We didn’t have too many low points, to be honest. We always had great tour partners and nothing terrible ever happened. None of our gear ever got stolen. I spilled a beer on a laptop and had to buy a new one in Belgium. It was my own fault, you know? Hard to get too beat up over that.
We did an interview years ago for a magazine called Modern Fix and it went under and the interview never printed. We talked about some moments with Jim that got awkward.
Yeah. I mean, Jim, given what Jim does in a show, we’ve never had quite the negative reaction you’d expect. He’s never been beaten up. He was bitten by a dog once in New Mexico. I don’t approve of people who bring dogs to loud music shows. Their ears are not equipped to handle that. You’re forcing an animal to be subjected to loud sound levels. The dog was in a freaked out environment, and Jim in a Speedo is running around, yelling and waving his arms. I don’t think anybody blames the dog. Certainly Jim and I don’t. That’s the closest he’d ever come to being attacked. Usually he does what ever he does during the show and I don’t have that much interaction with him.
Can you talk about the relationship you built with him over the years?
He and I were friends when it was just me doing Captain Ahab. Jim was such an intense person, he was basically coming to shows and doing that anyway. He got crowds really hyped up, so I just started asking him to come and do it at every show. It’s such a weird thing to have done. I think as a creative outlet, what Jim does in Captain Ahab is very, very strange. I’ve always had this—from the first moment—I always thought to myself that he’d be interested in doing this for maybe about a month and he’ll go do something else. Of course it’s been like 10 years at this point. I guess he must find it very fulfilling (laughs). He treats it and talks about it in ways I don’t understand. We’ve remained friends and we see a lot of each other and hang out. He actually lives with Bill Hutson, who’s in Clipping. They’re roommates. My guidance of Jim in the shows has been very, very minimal. After a show, the extent of collaboration would be, “I kinda looked out and you were doing X. Maybe that’s not the right time to do that.” He’d say ok. We didn’t argue about it. He does his thing and I do mine, certainly.
I do have to ask you: The soundtrack to Snakes on a Plane and the band’s appearance on The Office: Which one was better for you?
It’s weird. I’m very happy that (“Girls Gone Wild”) was in The Office. I liked the usage in The Office a lot. I think it really showcases both how fun and stupid the song is all at once. I think it’s really smart. It’s a little weird to ever say, “I’m really proud of something I licensed.” Of course I’m proud of the song and the music, but the decision of a music editor or a music supervisor to place something in the show—I have no control over that. I’m really happy the music was used in both cases. The Snakes on a Plane song we won a competition to get it in that movie, which is pretty exciting. But then, we were not treated very well by the movie or the studio or the soundtrack or anything. I’ve actually still never seen the movie or heard the 30 second edit they did of the song for the credits. That’s a little disappointing. I mean, that stuff happens. It’s not a big deal. I’ve done a lot of licensing at this point, and I like licensing, but if feels like such a shot in the dark. You basically just made a bunch of music, and on the whims of the people you don’t know, whose taste you don’t know, it may or may not get used somewhere. You have no control. I happen to like The Office and I approve of our music in Snakes on a Plane, but that’s kind of unusual. The Office is great. It’s done a lot of great things for the iTunes sales of that song (laughs).
What do you think you’ll miss most about performing as Captain Ahab?
I can’t think of anything that I’ll miss with Captain Ahab, because I’ll continue performing as Clipping. I’ve got some other project ideas that I shouldn’t talk about quite yet. I think probably, whatever I do—I mean Clipping is not going to inspire the sort of incredible partying joy I’ve seen in some Captain Ahab audiences. But, honestly, as I get older, I don’t want to stay out and party until six in the morning anymore. And being the catalyst for a party that I wouldn’t be at, it’s very flattering and it’s really fun and I’ve met lovely people, but I’m not really going to miss that. I want to make music that I want to see, and at some point Captain Ahab flipped into something that I might like, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to go see that band. I think I’d like the albums. I hope I would. It’s hard to tell. It’s so hard separate yourself. I’m pretty sure I’d like the albums (laughs.)
Here’s “Girls Gone Wild” in The Office:
Here’s an older video for “You Want Me” (contains graphic violence or at least lots of blood – the squeamish have been warned!):
And finally, here’s a tiny glimpse into the band’s personalities: