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Jesse Hlebo Is The Busiest Man In New York

Even being choked-out by a cop can't slow this multi-talented artist down.


Portrait by Jody Rogac

Here’s the first installment of our new column by Damon McMahon, who makes drifting acid-folk under the moniker of Amen Dunes. It’s some of our favorite stuff for those trance-out moments, so we asked Damon to put some words together for us and he hit us back with this feature on Jesse Hlebo, a multi-talented artist who’s directed videos for Damon’s band.

Jesse is one of the busiest New Yorkers I know. He’s a hyper-active artist, photographer, curator, and the founder of the publishing house/record label Swill Children. He rarely sleeps or changes his clothes and responds more quickly to emails than any human should. The last time I saw Jesse he had just been choked and dragged across the street by a cop. He was standing there smiling the next night ready to hang, hair dyed yellowish-orange, big cop claw marks around his neck. He was hit over the head by a baton and could barely breath, but he wasn’t arrested, so the next day he was good to start up on his life grind again. A glorious, super creative, and important, I think, life grind at that.

His music life is a constant flow of collaborations. He has been a stalwart NYC curator for years, from his work with Todd P back in the heyday of his shows to his work with Showpaper, curating numerous shows and covers for the all-ages paper. And in his own independent music projects, he has worked with some of the more interesting folks twiddling nobs and things in Brooklyn, including the likes of Hisham Bharoocha (Black Dice, Soft Circle), Lucky Dragons, Kid Millions (Oneida), Lichens, and many, many others.

Dude is so busy he barely has time to get choked, and so he barely had time to do this interview, as you can see.

Hey man, are you all good? Ready to answer a few questions?
I'm juggling a few things now so take your time.

I'm all set if you are?
One sec.

Okay. [45 minutes pass]

Would later be better?
One sec, sorry. [15 minutes pass] Alright. Go ahead, dogg.

I just wanted to ask some straight-forward questions, if that’s cool. You seem like the busiest dude I know. Tell me what your day’s like.
Wake up. Shower. Medication. Food/vinyl or Hot 97/NY Magazine. Skateboard to my studio. Answer emails/work on what needs to be done. Right now I'm working on nine large projects aside from smaller day-or-so-long ones, and commercial work. Then I got to my PO box and mail stuff, then back to the studio. Read. Take a nap. Eat rice and beans and steamed vegetables at the Dominican spot on Myrtle-Broadway for $4. Then I keep working until around 2AM or go to a show, opening, or meeting for the evening.

Though just a sliver of Jesse’s pie, much of this daily blitzkrieg gets dedicated to a ton of activity in the independent music scene in NYC, most notably through his work with Showpaper, his collaborative improvisational “Certain Distinction” pieces that he organized throughout the city from PS1 to Printer Matter, and his pivotal role in Nick Zinner's "41 Strings" performance. Good people want to work with Jesse because he is totally inspired, sincere, and open-minded, while still having killer taste—a rare combo. He is the king of making you psyched.

Jesse claims the roots of all this business are the oddly paired influences of Napster (“RIP Napster/RIP Kazaa/RIP Soulseek,” Jesse shouts out) and jazz on his younger Hlebo self. He waxes nostalgic about the golden days of file sharing and draws a parallel to the DIY music communities today. He told me that he’s “not a fan of what the term 'DIY' has become, but [he feels] obliged to use it in the hopes it’s recognized in the context of creating what one wants without the requirements of an authoritarian structure's interference.” You get the idea.

“Thinking about it in that context,” Jesse continues, “there is a similarity in the relationship to freedom that Napster and jazz share with one another: ‘Freedom with responsibility.’ I really like this phrase a lot. I heard it in a Bill Evans interview when he was asked to explain jazz, and it’s a mode that applies to all aspects of my life. Operating in a reactive rather than calculated way is much more my forte. I think its such a beautiful thing.”

Beautiful even if it means sometimes getting strangled by a cop’s fat fingers in Tompkins Square Park and dragged across the street, but a dude’s gotta stay reactive to keep himself on—or off—his own toes.

@amendunes