I’m to blame for the fact that Jason Evans Groth is answering my questions from the frozen goods aisle of a North Carolina Costco.
Groth and the other musicians calling themselves Songs: Molina – A Memorial Electric Co. will be at the Rockwell in Davis Square on Saturday to perform a tribute to their friend and collaborator Jason Molina, who passed away in 2013. But I’m late as I dial Groth to ask him about the show, which is why he’s grabbing some bulk items when he returns my belated call—and why he’s ducking into a cooler as he begins to answer my first question, causing our connection to cut out.
“I think, actually, Jason would think it was really funny that I’m talking to you while shopping at Costco,” Groth laughs, apologizing. “He hated interviews so much that he would often go out of his way to make it hard for interviewers to do stuff.”
Groth has been remembering his friend a lot these days. Molina was just 39 when he passed away from organ failure. A gifted musician who suffered from that lethal combination of depression and alcoholism, he performed and recorded with Groth under the name Songs: Ohia, and later, Magnolia Electric Co., along with a rotating cast of artists. Many members of the core group—Mike Brenner, Michael Kapinus, Mark Rice and Pete Schreiner—will come together for the show at the Rockwell and the rest of these upcoming tour dates.
Groth says that there was never an expectation among the band that they’d ever stop playing together. But it was a long time before they realized how sick their musical compatriot really was, before they saw that they needed to take a break.
“Him passing away … it wasn’t a surprise, but it was still a shock,” Groth says. “Knowing what kind of a person he was and how dedicated he was, there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to make it through.”
After his passing in 2013, the members of Magnolia Electric Co. honored their fallen friend with a two-day celebration of his life—part funeral, part rock show—in his town of Bloomington, Indiana. They did a similar run of memorial shows in 2014.
“Playing, for us, is actually a really good way for us as close friends to deal with the grief of losing another really close friend. It helps us get to know each other in a different way,” Groth says. “Jason was an amazing family builder. It was amazing the people he brought together. He could be a difficult person to work with, but he was really good at surrounding himself with people who weren’t.”
The latest tour dates coincide with the recent release of Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost. Penned by Erin Osmon, the rich biography of the musician’s life and death is full of memories from friends and family, who were more than happy to share what they knew about an artist who was notoriously somewhat private and guarded.
While he may have been secretive, Groth remembers Molina as a prankster. He laughs that when the band was on tour, Molina would sometimes stay in for the night while his bandmates went out, using his time in the hotel room to do something as intricate as setting up an ironing board with a sheet and fastening something that looked head-like, so that when everyone returned, a little drunk, they were frightened by what they thought was an attacker in the doorway.
All of this—Molina’s playfulness, his private nature, his moments of clarity, his times of extreme secrecy—have made it hard for Groth to come to terms with his death. Now in his Subaru en route to Trader Joe’s (hopefully Molina would approve), he says he still has dreams in which he’s alive and well, in which this is just one of his elaborate pranks. He admits that he probably spent a bit of time in denial about what happened.
“I heard ‘Blue Chicago Moon’ on a college radio station here the other day, and I just started bawling in the car,” he says. “When you hear your friend basically describing what would have been the best outcome—which is looking for help, and getting it, and then accepting the help—it becomes a really hard thing to deal with.”
Of course, when it comes to loss, it never really gets better, just easier to bear. But Groth says he’s found that playing those songs live—remembering how much Molina meant it that he wanted to get better when he wrote and sang them—has helped him deal with that confusing set of feelings, at least in part.
And at the Rockwell, the members of Magnolia Electric Co. will be joined by Molina’s good friend and frequent collaborator Jennie Benford, whose lilting harmonies lent a beautiful contrast to his voice on so many Songs: Ohia tracks.
“It’s when we’re onstage that the catharsis of it all comes out, when you’re sharing the music with people who really like it, too,” Groth says. “It’s feels like a necessary exercise to deal with the loss of someone who was so important to us, both as a friend but also as a creative guide and collaborator.”
“It helps me to hear it and to remember that it’s real,” he adds. “There’s no pretension that we could ever really do this without Jason, but we can do it in honor of him and really utilize all of the awesome people and talent he brought together. To celebrate that for a few nights every few years. He wrote those songs as a way to document what he was feeling and thinking. The music will stay alive without us.”
Songs: Molina – A Memorial Electric Co. will be at the Rockwell, 255 Elm St., on Saturday, June 24 at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are available here.