[Part of our TxM Superlatives series, find the whole series here]
Although it’s his sister Vanessa who is on the way to becoming a household name as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Jonah Bayer is no slouch. In fact, until you truly grasp the scope of his involvement in the modern alternative music and culture scenes, the truth will pervade: you don’t know Jonah. That’s especially true since much of what he does is hidden by a plastic Reagan mask, or at least done from outside the spotlight. But while his visibility isn’t necessarily a given in the punk and hardcore scenes, in 2015 everything the masked man touched was a golden reminder of the intentionality and depth of those communities. His path to success has been almost anonymous — an obscure motor in the punk machine. With a guitar, he was part of post-hardcore band The Lovekill, before covertly signing on with pseudo-anonymous powerviolence titans United Nations. With a pen he was an editor at Alternative Press in the mid-2000’s and now freelances for Noisey, A.V. Club and High Times among others. Finally, as a producer he is the driving force behind Going Off Track, a podcast where he and co-founders Stephen Smith (of Steven’s Untitled Rock Show!) and Brad Worrell shoot the shit about matters large and small with everyone from Andrew W.K. to Mike Kinsella to Hop Along. That’s not to mention his work co-producing the nose-thumbing fictional interview series Sound Advice or his writing and appearances on Fuse.TV. He’s even mensch enough to let his sister skewer his band in front of a bunch of crusty Brooklyn punks who may or may not be in on the joke. What’s so interesting about Jonah’s work — besides its volume of #content of course — is that it seamlessly straddles the many different roles that exist within the modern music industry. From behind a mask, he touches everything with rationality and concision.
The punk scene has never been shy about lionizing its idols, but Jonah is a different type of hero. While he isn’t necessarily hiding on purpose, he takes a calculated approach to his businesses, working as a writer, a facilitator and a player all at once, but never diminishing one role with another. On Going Off Track he is both an expert and moderator, using casually phrased, brief prompts to encourage musicians to wax about their scene or tell seemingly pedestrian but entirely applicable stories. In his conversation with Andy Nelson of Paint It Black, for instance, Jonah gently leads listeners through Nelson’s experience as a show organizer and musician in Philadelphia, using his own knowledge of the spaces to highlight his guest’s unique experiences and aesthetic integrity. When there are opportunities for his perspective as a member of United Nations or as a writer to dominate the tone of his conversations, Jonah instead prompts his guests to springboard off of the familiarity and dig deeper intotheir own narrative. The mask he wears comes through even in stereo, as Going Off Track is never truly about him the way that some podcasts center around their narcissistic hosts.
As a (ostensibly secret) member of United Nations, he is one the musicians and subjects that the rest of his work is designed to examine. After The Lovekill called it quits, Bayer wasn’t particularly visible with a guitar until he co-founded the UN with Geoff Rickly (of Thursday fame). The band only publically announced Rickly’s involvement, keeping the other bandmates’ identities secret ostensibly because of their involvement with other major label bands. Because of this Bayer once again operated from off-center. What’s fascinating though is not only that Jonah Bayer is in a band, but that he is in possibly the most intriguing and newsworthy punk band of this day and age — a band so mystical, so intentional and so divergent that a music writer’s involvement almost screams of gonzo journalism. Not only do they satirize a culture they participate in but they are actively dismissive of the capitalism ingrained in the music industry, going so far as to say “some things are not about ownership.” If this were a case of embedding himself in the group for the sake of study – which it’s not – Bayer would be a witness to political disobedience, musical innovation and art at it’s most honest. Instead, in this silo of his life, Bayer is a driving force behind it. His guitar playing on tracks like “Revolutions at Varying Speed” and “The Shape of Punk That Never Came” is more than just a cog in the band’s machine, it’s the unique element that gives those songs their twisted genius. Elsewhere, like on “Serious Business,” he holds back and lets the rhythm section take over1Don’t even get me started on that massive breakdown in the outro. The restraint and cognizance that make him a successful host of Going Off Track are here as well, and the mask he wears on stage mirrors the holistic position of the band’s music.
As a writer he is deft and pointed, displaying a veteran ear and an engaging angle without the nauseating aura of over-involvement. It’s not always easy to spot a Jonah Bayer article, because he’s so adept at using his broad awareness and experience in the scene to bring out the voices of others. His brief interview with Title Fight was one of the more engaging articles surrounding the band’s polarizing new album Hyperview— he even asks them explicitly whether they can sustain their role as a band while ignoring journalists’ takes. That’s a bold question for a journalist to ask, but it’s the kind of risk that garners an insightful response. In cases like this, Bayer’s experience as a musician enables him to better understand the mindset of his subjects, and ask the kinds of questions that might not occur to someone who hasn’t seen through that lens. His work may be silo-ed, but it’s still well-informed by everything he’s done in other realms. It’s also hilarious and irreverent at times.
This article is meant to be more than a “good-on-ya Jonah,” though. As a member of United Nations, he’s certainly in the purview of what we do here at Thirsty & Miserable. However, it’s relatively rare that we get to dig into what our influences in the music journalism world do. The meta nature of it, as well as the potentially groveling tone make it potentially unsavory to speak about the strengths of other writers. Few people are as engaging and admirable as Bayer, though. Under the mask lives a mind set on prodding and examining things at a minute level. Nothing is too small for Jonah to examine, and no intersection of work is unintentional. His interviews are conversational and his subjects always seem candid, while his analytic writing is efficient and effective. What’s more, it’s clear that he’s as well-respected as anyone in his position. It’s hard to know everyone. It’s even harder to be liked by them all. Jonah Bayer is consistently producing awesome things in an awesome realm, and he’s doing it in a relatively thankless way. It’s not much, but here’s a little slice of the recognition that every facet of his work deserves.
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|1.||↵||Don’t even get me started on that massive breakdown in the outro|