An Interview With Justin Cody – A character development exercise

From a May, 1999 interview in Music Science Magazine:

Coming into the NorCal’s Pub in East Sacramento, Justin Cody looks almost unrecognizable in cargo shorts, a seersucker button-up shirt, and flip-flops; a far cry from his usual stage uniform of khaki-colored Dickie’s pants, a plain-colored pocketed T-shirt, and Converse high-tops. “I’m feeling Spring in Sacramento,” he tells me, and why not?  It is a gorgeous day in his original hometown, and even though the temperatures promise to climb beyond 90 degrees, it is a comfortable 80 degrees at lunchtime.

Justin Cody Maelgwyn, unofficially dropped his family’s surname in 1986, after leaving Sacramento and finding a new home in New Britain, Connecticut, and prefers that everyone simply call him Cody.  Only his wife, Lily, and the birth family he has all but disowned, ever calls him Justin anymore.  His birth family is a touchy subject with Cody, and the terms of the interview are that I do not mention them at all.

Standing 6 foot 2 inches tall, and weighing in at a lean 165 pounds, Cody looks skinny, but has the toned and disciplined body of one trained in Martial Arts; Kung Fu, specifically.  Discipline is a recurring theme in Cody’s life, and it is clear that he survives only because of the discipline that he demands of himself.  His trim and athletic body, his musical virtuosity, and his ability to lead others are all a result of his discipline.

However disciplined his work ethic is, this discipline does not carry over to his appearance.  He looks haggard today, due to an overbooked schedule between his two bands; Colonel Manatee, and Dutch Oven.  Dutch Oven is the electric counterpart to the original, and now defunct, acoustic MGHB band (Maelgwyn, Guinness, Hejleh, and Beard), which released two albums under that moniker.  After the highly successful release of Dutch Oven’s first release in January, “Me & Whoever”, Cody’s has been stretched thin.  He has just returned from a four-month tour of the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has only ten days off before he returns to Connecticut for rehearsals for Colonel Manatee’s Summer Tour.

Cody’s normally unkempt straight light-blond hair is unusually long and scraggly, and he is sporting a ragged beard that looks more like a lack of grooming than a fashion statement.  He keeps his black bucket hat and mirrored sunglasses on throughout the interview, even though we are in a dimly lit pub, and he is all smiles and warmth.  If he is tired and overstretched, his attitude does not show it.  He sits down at the booth with me and immediately orders a Heineken, and then one for me; even though I insist that I will not imbibe on the job.  He insists that the beer will be drunken one way or another.

There is a strange anonymity to Cody, even in his original hometown, especially after a hugely successful debut album that has made his band instantly famous worldwide.  People pop into the pub, see Cody, and give him a slight nod or wave to acknowledge him, and then walk away as if he were only a neighbor or coworker.  Cody does not expect adoring fans, and the fans do not expect to lavish him with praise.  It is as if there is an unspoken code that fame is not recognized within the boundaries of Sacramento, and Cody seems content with that.

The sudden fame from Dutch Oven’s album and hit single, “Blue Moon Baby”, does not shake his loyalty to his first band.  He speaks dismissively about Dutch Oven, and speaks more highly of the less popular Colonel Manatee.  His reverence for his mentor, Adrian Valero, is obvious, bordering on unhealthy, and seems to deflect any praise for himself.  His devotion to his wife, Lily, is also deep and passionate, but it is clear that his love for her would easily trump any relationship with either of his bands.

The interview is conducted over bacon-avocado cheeseburgers (“The best in town!” he assures me), pub fries, and several Heinekens.  His schedule allows me 90 minutes for the interview, but he talks as if he were happy to give me all day.

 20 Questions with Justin Cody

1)  If you had a full free day with no responsibilities, what would you do?

            Spend it with Lily.  She gets first dibs on my spare time, which, of late, had been scarce.  She still tours with me, and so on off-nights, we go sight-seeing in whatever city we happen to land.  We are planning a nice two-week vacation after the Manatee Summer tour, but then Dutch Oven has rehearsals for a Fall tour right after that.  It’s funny; she’s with me almost every single day, but we only get to be alone on rare occasions.

Does that put a strain on the relationship?

            Probably <laughs>, but she gets it.  The Manatee was happening before I met her, so she knows that I have a responsibility to the band.  Dutch Oven is just a side-project that got a bit out of hand, but it will quiet down next year.  1999 will go down in history as a crazy fucking year, and then things will go back to normal.

 

2)  What impression do you make on people when they first meet you?

I don’t know.  I guess they like me.  Hard to say.  I was always that weird kid that was either scorned or ignored; and I lived up to that image, but I’ve grown up since then.  Years of hard work and forced socialization has made me more personable, I guess.  Being on a stage in front of 20,000 people on a nightly basis can give a guy loads of confidence.

 

How about after they have known you for a while?

            I always say that it’s easier to take advantage of me once you know me better because I hate to let anyone down.  Lily calls me a doormat, but I say that I am just reliable.  I’m too easy-going to say “no” to people, and so I don’t.  And now I am working every single fucking day of my life <laughs>.

3)  What is you proudest personal achievement?

            Well, I guess being part of something so huge and successful as the Manatee and lasting as long as I have. 

But Dutch Oven has already sold more albums in five months than Colonel Manatee has in its entire career.

            Right, but Dutch Oven is a fluke and will be forgotten by this time next year.  The Manatee has sold-out every single concert since 1994, and each year, the venues get larger and larger.  We may not have sold a lot of records, but we sell concert tickets, and we have been hugely successful for it.

            Tying back to my proudest personal achievement, being a part of the Manatee is it for me.  I had to claw and bite my way into the band.  Ade (Adrian Valero, lead guitarist for Colonel Manatee, ed.) did not want a second guitarist.  But as soon as I heard them play, I heard myself playing a part in it, and I lobbied hard to get a foot in the door.  Before Ade would even agree to let me in the band, I had to take guitar lessons from him first.  He would give me these impossibly scored music sheets that he wrote, and then I had two days to have them mastered.  Once I showed him that I could do that, then he agreed to let me join, but then I had to practice more hours than the rest of the band.  They all were working on their music degrees in college, and I think they saw me as a hack—which I clearly was—but, I was a hack with a vision <laughs>.  There was a lot of hazing going on in the first two years that I was in the band, and then they accepted me as one of their own.

 

4)  What are you most ashamed of in your life?

            There’s a lot of little shit from my youth that I’d like to take back—petty theft, hurting others as a projection of my own hurt, stupid stuff like that.  Nowadays, I don’t really have anything that I am ashamed of.  I live life pretty straight and narrow.  Oh wait, I guess I am ashamed that I hide from Lily how much pot I smoke.  She only thinks it’s a little bit. That’s stupid, I know, but I had to give you something, right?

 

5)  What would you like for your epitaph?

            “So self-sufficient, he dug his own grave.”

 

6)  What is the biggest conflict in your professional life?

            Well, I formed the MGHB as a way to get to play my own songs.  Ade never thought my songs fit the Manatee mold, and so I started these side bands as a way to give my own writing some air time.  The Manatee has my top priority, and the MGHB and Dutch Oven work during the Manatee’s off-season.  So far, there is no conflict.  The record company knows that Dutch Oven works around the Manatee’s schedule; it’s in my contract, so they can’t interfere, and there has yet to be a conflict in my professional life, except that Ade won’t play my songs.

What about in your personal life?

            That’s personal.  No?  Okay.  Lily and I resolve things quite easily and never really fight about anything.  She loves Connecticut, but she missed her friends and family, and so we bought a second home in Fair Oaks back in 1996.  We bounce back and forth as needed, and she tries to get us back to California whenever possible.  I think that living on the road is wearing her down, especially this year with both bands going full bore, and I think she may want to stay home every other tour, or so.  She loves being with me, of course, and she loves the music—especially Dutch Oven, since it is new music and a direct reflection of me, but she is getting tired of the road.  And I get that.

 

7)  What is the worst thing you have ever done to someone?

            Oh, my dad and I had some terrible rows when I was a teenager, and I said some terrible things to him.  But then, he did some pretty horrific things to me, so, fuck him.  I turned out okay, so I guess I could look back with some empathy and see that he was just a struggling man doing his best, but then, there are just some things that a grown man does not do to a child, and mental mind fucks definitely fits that bill.  I have disowned him, in a way, and that may be the worst thing that I have ever done to anyone, but I still do not see any way to go back and forgive him.

 

8)  What is the worst thing a friend could ever do to you?

Betrayal of any kind.  Friends don’t talk shit about you; they don’t steal from you; and they certainly do not try to muck around with your love life!

Are you referring to Allan Beard and Huey Guinness?

            Well, it’s not my place to say anything about that.  I don’t tell tales out of school, but yes, there is a reason that Allan is not in Dutch Oven.  Actually, there are several…aw hell, let’s drop it.

9)  What is the most important thing in your life?

            Lily.  Easy question!

10)  Okay, that segues nicely into my next question: If Lily ever wanted you to quit one or both bands, would you do that for her?

            Well, I don’t think it would ever come to that, but that’s a hard question to answer, really.  In one sense, I owe everything to the Manatee, so I would have to put them first, right?  But, a bond like the one I have with Lily only comes once in a lifetime, so there is no way I could ever give her up.  But then she would have to live with the guilt of making me live an unfulfilled professional life, and so she would never go there.  See?  It’s complicated.  I would drop Dutch Oven in a heartbeat for Lily, but the Manatee is a tougher decision to make.  The thing is that she would never ask me to quit either band.  She’s my other half; what makes me happy makes her happy.  It’s that simple.

 

10) What do you like best about yourself?

            I can make things happen.  I am tenacious, and I will get what I want.  I got into the Manatee even against Ade’s strongest protests, and now he has said that he couldn’t even imagine the band without me.  I wanted to get my own songs out there, and so I formed the MGHB and Dutch Oven.  And now Dutch Oven is hugely popular, for the moment, and some of my songs are gracing radio waves all over the globe.  I made that happen, even if it is all a fluke <laughs>.

 

11)  How important are your friends to you?

            Aside from Lily, there is nothing more important in my life than my friends.  Ade, Seth, Marty, and Nick (from Colonel Manatee, ed.) are like brothers to me.  We used to have to share hotel rooms and tightly-packed touring vans in the old days, and you really develop bonds with people when you live like that.  I would take a bullet for any of them.  A lot of fans think that because we are so successful and have been together for over 15 years that we are just business partners, but we are still close friends.  They all have come out to see me in both MGHB and Dutch Oven, so I know I have their support.

            And then me, Huey, Jam (Jamil Hejleh, ed.), and Randy have been best friends since junior high school and high school.  We cut our musical teeth together, and so when the idea came forth to start a solo project, they were my most obvious choices.  Miggy (Miguel Azevedo, ed.) and Butch started off as just hired help last year as we were putting Dutch Oven together, but they are becoming one of us!

 

12)  How important is each band to you?

            Well, I make no bones about the Manatee being my real band, while Dutch Oven just keeps me busy in the off-season.  I think that those remarks are offending Huey and Jam, but I’m not going to lie about it.  Dutch Oven is my bar band, while the Manatee is my more sophisticated and professional band.  I have tried to instill the same discipline into Huey and everyone else that Ade drilled into me, but they are too stubborn.  Huey is getting better, but he is no professional…not yet, anyway.  Until I can get these guys to take their art a little more seriously, I will treat them like the accident they are.  Randy and Miggy are the most professional of the bunch, since they have worked with several other bands, but I can barely get four hours of practice a few days a week out of this band.

 

13)  Could you stay in the band if you were no longer friends with your bandmates?

            No.  I already have money, so why would I want to hang out with people I don’t like on a regular basis just for more money?  The reason the bands work, for me, anyway, is because we are friends bonded by the music we make.  If we lose that and it becomes solely a business venture, then there is nothing there for me.

 

14)  Could you stay friends with your bandmates if their was no longer a band to hold you together?

            God, I hope so!  If Dutch Oven dissolved tomorrow, we would all still be friends; we have been since childhood, so that’s a no-brainer.  If the Manatee dissolved tomorrow, then I am not so sure.  I’d like to think that we would be friends forever, but we have grown a little distant, what with a shorter touring schedule each year, and not making albums regularly anymore.  I guess I have a small amount of doubt with the Manatee since we weren’t friends before I joined the band.  I have only known them within the context of the band and working our asses off together.  I think we need to have a band conference-slash-vacation in the Bahamas sometime.  Do some team-building exercises or something, and then play some guerrilla-style gigs.  Yeah.  I’m gonna run that by them when I see them next.  Maybe record an album in the Caymans.

 

15)  How do you maintain two lives, with two bands, and two homes in two different states?

            Well, it’s been rough, but making clear schedules that do not allow for any variation helps.  Having an understanding wife who helps me remember where I am supposed to be helps a lot, as well.  It’s tiring, but it works.  Again, I don’t expect it to be this busy forever; just this year.

 

17)  What do you offer each band that no one else in the world could offer?

            Well, in the Manatee, I am the sound-smith, meaning I lay down all sorts of textures that you would not expect from a rhythm guitarist.  My guitar is designed to sound like an acoustic guitar, so it has a different tone than most guitars in conventional rock bands.  Plus, I play with a lot of effect pedals to create otherworldly sounds and tones under the main themes of the music.  And then, I use other unconventional instruments in rather unconventional ways, like using a pedal steel guitar with delay and reverb effects, or a banjo with a tube-screamer and a flanger.  All to give the music a texture that no other band has.

            In Dutch Oven, obviously, I am the lead writer and singer.  Jam has a few of his own songs, and we let Huey sing a couple, but that band is centered on my songs, my voice, and my vision.

 

18)  Are you a better leader or a better follower?

            Depends on my role, I guess.  In the Manatee, I am a better follower, because it’s Ade’s band, and we all sort of follow his vision.  I have my own ideas that usually get accepted, and we are an improv band, so we all just go with the flow during jam time, but we all still follow Ade’s lead.  In Dutch Oven, I have to be the leader, not only because it’s my band, but because I have the most professional experience, and someone has to tell those barely-functioning chimps what to do <laughs>.  I don’t like to tell people what to do; it would be so much better if they instinctively knew what I wanted, and I guess it will get to that point if we stay together long enough.

 

19)  What is your responsibility to the world?

Wow!  I have tried to avoid responsibility to anything more than my wife, my bands, and myself.  I guess I try to live by the old adage, “First, Do no harm.”  That’s good.

Has that changed with your fame, or have you always felt that way?

            No, I have always felt that way.  I guess if anything has changed with fame, it would be that I try to donate more of my earnings to various charities I support.  I don’t need all the money I have, so why not give the excess away?

 

20)  Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

            I don’t know.  I’m only 31 now, so in twenty years, I will be 51, right? I could totally still be rocking-out in my 50s.  I always hoped that the Grateful Dead would have lasted into their 70s, but Jerry Garcia died at 53, which is way too young, and that was that.  The Rolling Stones will probably still tour until one of them dies.  So, I hope that the Manatee will keep touring in some capacity in twenty years.  We burned ourselves out touring so hard up to about 1996, and we have been shortening our touring schedule more and more each year since.  That has opened a lot of time for me to do Dutch Oven, but I do miss playing with the Manatee when we are on break.  I think we have a good schedule of about 60 shows each year.  If we keep it like that, we can last forever.

2 Comments

Filed under Blue Moon Baby - The Novel

2 responses to “An Interview With Justin Cody – A character development exercise

  1. Great questions–and answers. Had the title not said the character development bit, I would have thought this was a real person with a very curious interviewer.
    –JW

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