OK, get this: Some guy was on the top floor of a giant skyscraper, looking through a dirty window.
He eventually got depressed and decided to jump through it. He fell all the way to the end. He didn’t die. Why didn’t he die? (Insert hard thinking.) Give up? Well, he was a window-washer, and he jumped through the glass into the building.
Kinda dark. Kinda a sweet relief. Perspective is tricky. And for Jason Wells of for algernon, although his sound veers toward soothing, then leans into the moody side, a focused, optimistic, artistic view is key.
“As long as I can play and create, I’m happy,” he says. “The pressure of having the record that makes or breaks me, well, I don’t really care anymore. I have moments when I wonder why I go on, and then I get an e-mail from someone somewhere. If I reached out to one person, that’s awesome to me. I don’t know what else could happen from there.”
Grandma’s Casio electronic piano was Wells’ first stab at Rock. For a while, he clung to nothing but Gangsta Rap and Frank Sinatra. Later, on guitar, he pumped out originals. He laughs quietly.
“Now I have too many instruments,” he says. “Banjos, ukuleles, all kinds of crazy stuff.”
He likes literary references and “stupid long titles.” He talks about the dark singers — Elliott Smith, Nick Drake — with an ironic grin. A Cincinnati West-sider with a red-brown scruffy beard, glasses, a simple sweater and black Chucks, Wells admits that his fingertips are numb. Nerves.
Although lighthearted and modest by nature, his craftily subtle songs are spaciously pensive, with a whispery, bare quality reminiscent of Chris Whitley. The “open background” feel to his minimalistic tunes doesn’t overpower the whole mood but rather supports it.
In 2000, for algernon began as an attic-recording project with “a bunch of gadgets.” Now, he says, “You can barely walk in. I’ve got so much stuff in there. You can always tell when I’m making an album. There’s paper on the floor, instruments, keyboards piled on top; it looks like a tornado went through.”
He later worked with fellow locals the Minni-Thins. “I’m not a leader in a band situation,” Wells says, “so I back away and let other people take over, and what I had originally envisioned goes away in that atmosphere, so I work better alone.”
At one point, eight people performed with for algernon live, complete with strings and horns.
“It was beautiful,” he says, “but I ended up stripping it back down.”
Friends add parts, but Wells mostly records alone. Releasing a slew of CDs since 2001, his latest two creations, (con)sequence and an ungentlemanly act at sea, will be released concurrently at his next show. Until now, ungentlemanly has been in the closet.
“The songs were pretty revealing, and people would listen to it and ask, ‘Are you OK?’ ” Wells says. “After three of those phone calls I was like, ‘I’m not gonna let anyone else hear this. It’s some of the craziest stuff I’ve ever done.’ Later, I was happiest with it, actually.”
Currently, Dayton band Sleepybird backs him live.
“I basically stalked them until they were my friend,” he says. “I’ve been writing with them in mind. Their sound naturally fit with these two albums — dark, orchestral and folky at the same time. Big and tiny all at once. The practices we’ve had have been amazing. I get lost just listening to them, so I’m really glad to have them along.”
Drawn to the vast scope of Icelandic group Sigur Ros, Wells remarks, “I didn’t write anything for like six months after seeing (Sigur Ros) play live. That’s the way you should walk out after seeing someone. You should feel inspired. You should feel healed. I don’t think I’m anywhere near that, but that’s the goal I’m looking for when I’m writing, and now with Sleepybird I see potential I guess.
“I remember this story about Bruce Springsteen,” Wells says. “He was playing some New Jersey bar and someone came up to him and said, ‘You really saved my life tonight,’ and it doesn’t matter from there. Everything else is just a blessing from there on out.”
Wells smiles, looking away, glancing into the coffee shop window.
Sometimes, despite yesterday’s cloudiness, the view through the glass becomes streak-free. All clear.
FOR ALGERNON (foralgernon.com) will host a CD release party at Rohs Street Café on Saturday with Sleepybird. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.