An Interview with Jake Longstreth

Let me paint a picture for you—no pun intended. There’s a guy who spends his days painting Subway and Pizza Hut storefronts in painstaking detail, and—according to his Wikipedia page—“gives in-depth investigative reports on various topics such as the history of the Frito-Lay corporation, PepsiCo and the NRA” on the radio. To the casual reader, this overly simplified description might sound pretty strange. But to loyal listeners of the Beats 1 radio show Time Crisis, you know I’m talking about Jake Longstreth.

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Carbon Canyon 18. oil on muslin, 61 x 41″, 2017

Jake Longstreth plays co-host to Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig on Time Crisis. While fans of the show might know Jake for his plainspoken criticism of the Chain Smokers and love for the tasteful palate of ‘70s rock, he’s definitely no slouch in the art world. A 2008 recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, with featured collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art Library and Crocker Art Museum, Jake’s visual studies of American corporate architecture and free range oil paintings depict an artist who has honed craft.

I first found out about Jake Longstreth’s artwork when I began listening to Time Crisis in the summer of 2015. The show’s take on mainstream top 5 radio was what drew me in, but the music history lessons, “Back in my neighborhood” riffs between Jake and Ezra and—of course—“Eileen’s Car” is what turned me from a casual listener into someone who couldn’t wait for each new episode.

I had the chance to speak with Jake over the phone and we talked about his big box paintings and working on Time Crisis. But mostly, we just discussed his love/hate relationship with The Eagles.

You grew up in Connecticut, but your paintings definitely have a California style to them. What about the West Coast style of painting inspired your work?

I’ve always gravitated more towards the landscapes of the Western United States. I remember visiting California a lot as a kid, because my mom’s from here and the whole thing really resonated and blew my mind when I was a kid. A lot of the artists I liked later on as I got more serious about art were Californians like Robert Bechtle, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney and a lot of photographers working out of the Western United States like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz. There’s just something about the light and starkness of the landscapes that really resonated with me over time.

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Idaho Falls acrylic on panel, 36 x 36″, 2006

Your early paintings show a lot of more commercial subjects like architectural paintings of big box stores and fast food franchises, but in recent years, they’ve transitioned into more landscape and less structural paintings. Do you think, as you get older, you’re moving away from these more commercial subjects in your work?

I don’t know if it’s quite that clean. I’m actually doing a show next year and I think it’s gonna be big paintings going back to that big box stuff—like Office Max and Home Depot and all that. I think a lot of artists—if they’ve been doing it for a while—they’ll return to subject matters they’ve explored earlier in their careers. That’s seems pretty common. I haven’t really tackled that subject matter in a long time. But, I’m a different person than I was 10 or 15 years ago. It just keeps things fresh not to do any one thing for too long.

Just like your early paintings, a lot of the subjects you and Ezra talk about on Time Crisis focus on these big corporations and chains that are a part of our every day life, but we don’t really give much thought to. What draws you to this subject matter?

Well, they’re just so ubiquitous. It’s that thing where everyone is just so familiar with the subject matter to begin with, and a lot of us don’t really give it a second thought. A lot of that stuff is—in a way—hiding in plain site a lot of the times. Places like that are such big parts of our civic and economic life that we rarely think about them or investigate them. It’s also kind of funny—that stuff. Taco Bell is just funny to talk about or do a painting of. I’m just fascinated by that stuff for some reason. And on the show, we love to really get deep into the history of these companies, and get into Post World War II America and the whole Mad Men era starting up. It’s fun to trip out on, like, when that stuff started, you had no idea where it would end up. There was never really any formal studying, but these were definitely topics I’d read a fair amount about. In a way it’s related to the art I’ve made over the years and it’s related to funny conversations that Ezra and I have probably had in the past. These things are just rarely discussed in-depth, so it’s interesting to find out about these topics a little more.

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Keys View 2 oil on muslin, 61 x 41″, 2017

On Time Crisis, you’ve mentioned having a college radio show that was similar to what you and Ezra do now. After primarily working as a painter for so long, is it a little strange to get back into radio working for a big company like Apple and having your show broadcast across the world?

It’s pretty funny—definitely not something I was planning on doing. I’ve known Ezra now for about 12 years, so it just kind of grew organically. He mentioned doing this new show for Apple and was just like, “Hey, you should come on.” So, it just ended up going from there. There was never really a sit-down, make a plan kind of thing with the show.

Your role on Time Crisis is that of the older music purist who doesn’t really pay much attention to mainstream pop music. Since working on the show, how has pop music from today crept into your day-to-day, if at all?

I don’t really think about mainstream pop or listen to it outside of the show, which I think is really part of the conceit of the show. Maybe Ezra absorbs this stuff a bit, but I certainly have not. When I hear a song on the top 5 on the show, I’m hearing it for the first time. When it’s been in the top 5 for weeks on end, it starts to get funny, because now I’ve heard this random pop song a ton of times. But, I don’t really put a lot of thought or time into that kind of music outside of the show. It’s sort of funny, because it’s not really that much of a shtick. I don’t know if the conversations Ezra and I have off the air would honestly be that much different that the ones on Time Crisis. We don’t really analyze it when we’re not doing the show. I think it’s best when it’s just more of a free-flowing conversation and we’re just being natural to how we are in real life.

Speaking of music, your brother Dave is in the Dirty Projectors. I’ve read that you were like the cooler older brother who’d introduce him to a lot of music. You being a visual artist, and he a musician, do you guys ever bounce creative ideas off of one another?

I would say that’s been a life-long ongoing conversation between Dave and I. Obviously it’s not super direct, because I’m doing paintings and he’s making music. But, in terms of a wide-ranging conversation about creativity, I’d say that’s definitely a big part of our relationship. I feel really lucky to have a sibling that I’m so close with and that we share so much in common.

A major topic on the show has been about The Eagles. You guys have talked in-depth about why they’re so divisive and your brother, Dave, has even said that Don Henley is “an avatar for my older brother.” What about the band do you find so fascinating?

Well, I would say I love maybe 10 of their songs. So, I’m not like a die-hard Eagles fan. But, I do find their place in musical history and American culture to be pretty interesting. It’s come up a few times on the show, but there are a lot of layers to the fascination with The Eagles. I like that they simultaneously are singing about and—in a sense—critiquing this hedonistic Southern California lifestyle. But, at the same time, they’re also embodying that very lifestyle. Like, they’re singing about life in the fast lane and life in LA, and did it so clearly and successfully, that they became the symbols of the very thing they were singing about.

It’s a little trippy. I don’t think it was intentional. But what I find fascinating is that they’re pretty middle-of-the-road, bland, but they’re also super divisive for some reason. Like, people really hate them. I find that fascinating, because they represent this rich, hippie baby-boomer sellout, which I don’t know is entirely fair. Another thing that fascinates me about them, is that coming out of the ‘60s, they kind of took that more idiosyncratic music from the time—like your Crosby Stills and Nash, The Byrds or Joni Mitchell—and they kind of sanded off all the edges and made this perfectly packaged, representation of Southern California music. There’s something about them that’s just really bland in one sense, but so deep in another sense. It’s hard to explain my fascination with that band. Does that make sense to you? Like, how old are you?

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Carbon Canyon (Campus) oil on muslin, 61 x 41″, 2017

I’m 23.

So, what’s your feeling for The Eagles?

Well, I watched that super-long documentary and I can see how maybe their personalities are pretty hard to get behind. Plus, that second half of the documentary probably didn’t have to happen.

Yeah I agree completely. That second part was brutal. That last hour, like with Hell Freezes Over and after, that was brutal, just brutal.

I watched it twice, though, so I guess what does that say about me?

Yeah I watched a couple times too. What I liked about it was how antagonistic they are with each other and the open grievances between each other. It’s amazing.

You’ve played in a few bands as well. You’ve called yourself the “weak link” in a Grateful Dead cover band and played in a few others. Did you ever want to pursue music fully, or was painting always the obvious first choice.

It’s pretty low-key, you know? I was in bands in high school and college and after college in Portland and I did a little bit of mini van touring with some bands you probably never heard of. I’ve always loved playing music, but it’s always played second fiddle to the art for me. It’s something I still definitely love doing. Like, in the last few years I played in Little Wings a lot, which is my buddy Kyle [Field’s] band and a Grateful Dead cover band. But it’s really mostly like hobby rock. But, I never really thought of pursuing it professionally ‘cause I always just thought I was better at art.

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