MJ Lenderman + Florry | Thursday, Feb. 2  |  8 pm  |  Cat’s Cradle Back Room, 300 E. Main Street, Carrboro  |  Sold out 

American rock ’n’ roll has always boasted an illustrious tradition of boozy, brainy, country-inflected antiheroes. From counterculture iconoclasts David Crosby and Lucinda Williams to indie icons Jason Molina and David Berman and under-the-radar cult artists like Richard Buckner and Lydia Loveless, off-kilter listeners love a good mélange of guitar-based stomp, rural twang, and narrative incision. That explains why Asheville’s Jake “MJ” Lenderman has quietly become a cult favorite of rock critics and in-the-know artists.

His 2022 solo album Boat Songs made (and even topped) several influential best-of lists. Meanwhile, his membership in one of the year’s biggest buzz bands, Wednesday—he plays guitar while his partner, Karly Hartzman, serves as its primary songwriter and frontwoman—has him teetering on the cusp of bigger indie-rock stardom.

At first glance, Lenderman’s superpower seems fleeting. His three full-length albums spin charmingly compact narratives out of 1990s sports nostalgia, foggy memories of drinking too much, and the burning familiarity of friendship and romance. (Every writer’s got a favorite line; mine comes from 2022’s “Six Flags”: “Dripping wet / From the log ride / Insecure from the car ride / Destroyed by your love.”)

But there’s something intensely sad, sincere, and familiar—in short, timeless—about songs like “Under Control” and “TLC Cagematch,” which telescope out from poor driving and WWE wrestling, respectively, to tearfully grapple with regret and grief. Ahead of Lenderman’s upcoming stop at Cat’s Cradle, INDY Week chatted on the phone with him about community, craft, characterization, self-deprecation—and, of course, UNC basketball.

INDY Week: Your show at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro is only your second of the year. Are you excited to get back on the road—especially as a warm-up before Wednesday’s new album drops in April?

MJ LENDERMAN: I think I’m ready to get back out there. I’ve been home long enough—I’m starting to get the itch again. And this [MJ Lenderman tour] is not a super long one, either. It’s only a couple of weeks, and I won’t have to tour for another month or so after that.

You’re obviously familiar with playing here, right?

Yeah. The Triangle’s one of my favorite places to play. Being from Asheville, it’s kind of the first place I ever went out of town to play. We’ve played Hopscotch in Raleigh every year for the past four or five years. We have a lot of friends there who are great musicians, there are good venues.… It’s a great place with a lot of history.

How about Asheville? How connected do you still feel with your hometown as you—and it—have grown and changed?

It’s a solid community. Growing up here, I still see familiar faces at Static Age Records, where I’ve been going since I was 14. The tough thing is that there aren’t venues here that fit my bands anymore—they’re either too big or too small. Last time we tried to play in town, the fire marshal came and shut it down. People from outside are starting to think of Asheville as more of a music city, which is cool. It’s not just jam bands. 

Boat Songs garnered tons of acclaim last year and Wednesday’s much-anticipated Dead Oceans debut Rat Saw God comes out in April. Has your craft as a writer evolved as your fame has expanded?

Yeah, that’s a funny one. I still try to do the write-20-random-lines-a-day thing, just to have some sort of word bank to pick from when I want to sit down and write. But to be honest, I really don’t feel like I’ve figured it out. I can go six months without writing. A lot of it has to do with having some sort of practice. Reading helps. I’ve been off my phone a little more lately—and I’ve stopped reading what people think about my old music. That stuff is distracting. So one answer to your question is getting rid of distractions that get in the way of actually working. My own brain—my self-deprecation—gets in the way of writing, too. But the joy that finishing a song brings me never really goes away. That’s always going to make me happier than probably anything else.

Does some of that difficulty come from writing songs that are so true to life? Your lyrics can feel simultaneously tossed off and knife sharp.

Even if a song is written from a first-person perspective, I realized that if I make the narrator somebody that’s not me, that frees me up to say anything. I can be a bad guy. Honestly, none of my music is from me completely. There are elements of it that are real. It blurs some lines.

Even “Six Flags”? That’s my favorite song, and something about it feels particularly raw.

That one’s actually a true story, now that you say that.

I thought so!

That was actually the first song I wrote for Boat Songs. It was done a couple years before all the other ones. That’s why it’s longer, too. It’s more like the songs on the self-titled [album, 2019’s MJ Lenderman]. It’s written from the same place and person.

Sports references abound in your lyrics. In a past interview, you said, “Around 2020, I started feeling it was OK to like sports again.”

I grew up playing basketball. It was pretty time-consuming through middle school and my first year of high school. I practiced every day. But I got super tired of it. The coaches I had were trying to beat you down. I got turned off by that, even though I like the game of basketball. The competition is really primal. I feel like everybody can get down with it if you pay attention. In college, I didn’t feel like the music people I was around thought sports were cool. Now I can just appreciate it. I like to shoot around—just the motion of a jump shot can be meditative.

Who are your favorite basketball players or teams?

I like good shooters—Allen Iverson, Ray Allen. It’s funny, I can talk way longer about early-2000s basketball than I can about what’s happening now. I try to keep up as much as possible, but it’s hard to pick a team because everybody’s always moving around. I want to see Charlotte do well. I like Memphis, too. I grew up in a college sports house, so North Carolina basketball is big. But my parents went to UVA, and their team has gotten good in the last 10 years.

UVA beat UNC last month!

There you go.

What else is inspiring you these days?

I’ve been doing some recording for other people, just playing guitar. That’s been a source of inspiration. I haven’t really been listening to anything super new, but I have been revisiting Smog and Bill Callahan. His older music is really simple. He’ll repeat the same phrase a lot until it really makes sense. “I Was a Stranger” from Red Apple Falls is on repeat. I’ve been trying to read more lately, too—a lot of self-taught Southern writers like Larry Brown, Harry Crews, and Breece D’J Pancake, which sounds like a fake name. But he’s a real writer from West Virginia. All short stories—simple language but profound. Everything you want from a book.

You didn’t do a lot of press last year after Boat Songs came out, and it feels like you’re taking a back seat in recent interviews of Wednesday. What do you want from those of us writing about MJ Lenderman?

People want to make some sort of story out of my life or Karly’s life, but I don’t think of myself as very good at talking. The less people hear me talk, the more they can project on me or think I’m a smart guy. It’s mostly a protective mechanism on my part—and maybe a little laziness. But as a music fan myself, I’m always grateful when people do these kinds of interviews.

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