Too funny for folk
Jim's Big Ego (l-r): Jim Infantino, Dan Cantor, Jesse Flack (photo by Liz Linder)
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 22, 2004) – Just a few years into his career as a solo, acoustic singer-songwriter, Jim Infantino discovered he was just too darn funny. In the world of folk coffeehouses, that was as much a curse as a blessing. So he reinvented himself as the leader of a pop-rock power trio.
“I didn’t realize going into playing music that categories are really important,” said Infantino -- who brings his group, Jim’s Big Ego, to Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Friday night at 8:30 -- in a recent phone interview from his home in Brighton.
“When people go to a coffeehouse there’s sort of a quintessential coffeehouse performer, an ideal, and if you don’t fit the ideal you’re in another category,” said Infantino. “I was beginning to be pigeonholed in the funny singer-songwriter category, which was too narrow. A lot of people were sitting there waiting for me to say the next funny thing.”
Rebelling against the stereotype of the comic folksinger, Infantino formed a band with a bassist and drummer. His songs didn’t change much, but somehow the different context took the edge off the comic aspect.
“I wanted to build a show where people’s expectations were challenged,” said Infantino, who was named New Artist of the Year in 1995 by the National Academy of Songwriters. “They would sit there disappointed if I didn’t play something funny in the next song. Going to a band from there gave me a different venue, and in a rock club expectations changed.
“If it’s just you, you’re like a comedian with a guitar. I seriously considered that aspect, and even performed in comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star. But there wasn’t much depth to it. I’m not dying to get the laugh. I’m going for something more subtle or more full. There’s more information there.”
Not that Infantino’s material is any less funny than before. The songs on his latest album, “They’re Everywhere!” (bigego.com), are chock full of his trademark wit and verbal wordplay. “I’m a paranoid schizophrenic with surround-sound speakers,” he sings in the title track that kicks off the first of a dozen, catchy original compositions. He is a felicitous wordsmith whose love of language infuses lines like: “She’s got a Harley she hardly ever rides.”
Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that Infantino actually majored in the philosophy of language at Haverford College. His studies have influenced his writing, and he’s probably the only rock songwriter who can casually allude to Wittgenstein without sounding pompous or effete.
“I allow myself a little more freedom, and every once in a while I use words to play more, not to denote meaning,” he said. “There’s this idea that Wittgenstein had that words are not referential, that they’re just pieces used in a game and we all know the rules because they were communicated to us by example.
“It’s really freeing if you start to understand that words really just have references in regard to each other, and you can use them however you like. There’s really no end to how you can play with language.”
In addition to being a pop-rock polymath who is comfortable writing in styles ranging from folk to funk and pop to punk, Infantino – whose music would likely appeal to fans of Ween, Weezer, They Might Be Giants, Soul Coughing and Barenaked Ladies -- is also something of a technical wizard. When he is not writing, recording or performing music, he wears another hat as an award-winning web designer, primarily creating websites for other musicians. His own site, www.bigego.com, serves as a marketing tool for both his music and his skills as a designer.
“I’m working on new technologies on the web that will hopefully let me grow the design business and allow it to exist without my doing it all the time personally, so that when I go on the road others will be able to build the sites,” he said. “I have done a lot of sites for musicians, and I’m working on ways to make it quick and affordable by modularizing it so a musician isn’t looking at a two-thousand dollar bill to set up a site. That’s what musicians need, as I know very well.”
Infantino was an early and enthusiastic adopter of Internet technology as a means to communicate directly with fans. And he doesn’t buy for one minute the argument that electronic file-sharing hurts artists.
“Napster was doing great things for my band,” said Infantino, who regularly offers access to individual tracks on his website. “The RIAA had shut down Napster, and Napster wanted to comply and cooperate. They asked for a list of songs the RIAA didn’t want on Napster, and they said they would block them. The RIAA submitted a list of every copyrighted song, including mine, thus keeping me from getting the publicity that I wanted.”
This led Infantino to question what good was a copyright if it turned out that it could be used against him. He began signing onto groups like the Electronic Freedom Foundation and researching obscure avenues of intellectual property rights.
He discovered something called a Creative Commons License. Building upon the rights embodied in an owner’s copyright, Creative Commons offers a series of custom-designed licenses that provide for free use of the material. “You can say copy it, share it, sell it, use it, or you can say what we’ve said: that sharing is fine, but commercial use is not. All artists should look into this. It gives you more control.”
“They’re Everywhere!” is governed by a “Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial-sharealike license.” Infantino’s interest in fair use of copyrighted material even made it into one of the songs on his new album, called “Mix Tape.” It’s also clear from some of his songs, including “Cut Off Your Head,” that this humorous, philosophical techno-geek whose songs occasionally boast a sharp, acidic edge, has a more tender, contemplative, spiritual side.
“I have no problem reconciling humor and spirituality,” said Infantino. “I think any really good spiritual teacher I’ve met has always been on the verge of laughing. The Dalai Lama is on the verge of laughter all the time. If you get such a perspective on life, it’s funny as hell. I suppose I want to write that perspective into songs. Ideally that’s what I like to do. That’s what inspires me.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 23, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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