Rock ‘n roller Mojo Nixon was one of the zaniest cult figures to emerge from the American college rock scene in the 1980s. Born Neill Kirby McMillan, Jr., he came up with his stage name during a mystical experience in New Orleans in 1982, saying Mojo Nixon is “just two things that shouldn’t go together – Mojo is some disreputable blues musician, and Nixon is some bad politics.”
Nixon penned some of the most outrageously titled tunes ever set to wax, among them “Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child,” “Don Henley Must Die,” “Bring Me the Head of David Geffen,” and “Jesus at McDonalds.” Nixon is the subject of a new career-spanning documentary, The Mojo Manifesto: The Life and Times of Mojo Nixon, which premiered last week at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
360°Sound had a chance to speak with Nixon and director Matt Eskey about the film. Eskey, who founded the Americana record label Freedom Records and joined Nixon’s band The Toad Liquors as bassist in 1993, told 360°Sound that The Mojo Manifesto will be available on streaming platforms as soon as possible, perhaps as soon as two or three months from now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: How did this documentary come to be?
Matt Eskey: I got the idea back in 2011. I saw Mojo in a different documentary, and I thought he was great in it. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for years. I started filming in 2012 and gathering all the archival stuff. I took a five-year break and then in 2019 took a year off to edit. We were ready for 2020 and then we had to take a break. The good thing about that long journey was that I was ready to make sure I got all the archival stuff, track it all down within that 10 years. I got everything I needed to, and it took a while to do that.
Mojo Nixon: What he’s leaving out is we were going on The Outlaw Country Cruise, and I told him if he didn’t have a 20-minute reel he couldn’t go on the cruise.
Eskey: Yeah, that’s how it got started.
Nixon: Then he made 20 and, all of a sudden, he had 40, then he had 60.
Eskey: It’s like anything else in life, getting started is the hardest part. Tackling an edit of a movie is such a huge job it’s hard to even get started. He said just get 20 and once I did, I was on my way.
Nixon: You gotta remember, [Eskey is a] bass player, an entrepreneur, he never made a movie. He’s seen some movies. At one point, he literally typed into the computer, ‘How do you edit a movie?’ And then things went from there.
Eskey: That’s true. I literally Googled it. It was a big learning experience. Not only did I have to do it, but I had to learn how to do it.
Mojo, what’d you think of it after seeing the final cut?
Nixon: It’s a lot of Mojo. It’s just a lot of bullshit. Here’s a big dose of bullshit. Oh, guess what? More’s comin’ around the corner. Here’s some early bullshit, later bullshit, here’s some bullshit with [The Dead Kennedys’] Jello [Biafra]. I liked it. Before he started, I said, ‘It should be funny. It should be short. And it should make the fans happy.’ And I got out of the way. I didn’t put my head over his shoulder. I made two or three minor suggestions and that was it.
Eskey: That’s true. He was not involved. I got to make the movie I wanted to make.
You had a devoted cult following in the ‘80s and ‘90s. What do you think it was about your music and lyrics that resonated with people?
Nixon: One of the things I’ve known for a long time is people that like me really like me. And people that don’t get it, they’re never gonna get it. It speaks to a certain wild hair, a certain freedom and craziness, a ‘fuck you’ to whoever is keeping you down. Musically, we’re playing loud, fast Chuck Berry songs. That’s what the Stones were doing, too. We’re just following in the footsteps of playing American rock ‘n roll party music. People came not just for the music, but all of the BS that I would say in between. Like, ‘I can’t believe what the hell he just said.’
Your career benefited from college radio and MTV. This was back when the network showed music videos and took more creative risks. It’s a totally different world now. Do you think Mojo Nixon would have an easier or harder time gaining traction today?
Nixon: I don’t know. But I do know we were lucky to be in that little zone. There was a college radio chart, and we were like #2. Who’s number #1? R.E.M. They were always #1. There was a lot of community stations, public access TV stations, a lot of that footage in the documentary is from those. Everybody had a cable access show in ‘80s. They came in and said, ‘Can we interview you?’ ‘Sure! Just send me a tape.’
Which do you think is your best record?
Nixon: I never really think about that, but probably the ones with [producer] Jim Dickinson. Jim was a special cat. Maybe the one with “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child.” We had the baritone sax, Dickinson is playing piano, that was maybe closer to the musical idea I had all along.
One of the few covers on your album Whereabouts Unknown was The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma.” Why’d you pick that song?
Nixon: Well, I think it was literally trying to get on the radio. I did a song called “Get Out of My Way!” [about being stuck in traffic]. The morning shows that were looking for funny songs would play it. I did “Elvis is Everywhere,” and that was good, and then I had a follow-up, “(619) 239-King,” and that was an attempt to capitalize on that.
I went to the alternative radio station in San Diego. My buddy Mike Halloran worked there. He goes, ‘You should cover The Smiths.’ It was his idea. I turned Morrissey into kind of a Bruce Springsteen/George Thorogood song.
The film begins with Nixon recording his 1990 solo album, Otis, with Dickinson and later covers his childhood and early career. Talk about the decision to present the doc in a non-chronological format.
Eskey: Yeah, it was definitely hard to figure out how to tell the story. When I was editing, I didn’t really know what the story was going to be in the beginning, middle, or the end. I sort of found the end. Then was the decision to do the chapters out of order, which was kind of a homage, like a [Quentin] Tarantino kind of thing. That’s a good way to do a flashback. To me, it worked. I really like it set up that way. I thought that Otis footage was really a cool way to start the film.
Mojo, how would you describe your political views today?
Nixon: I’ve always been a liberal. I think of politics as a circle. There’s a place where you’re so left, you’re almost up against the anarchists, and the anarchists are up against the libertarians, and they’re out in the woods. I firmly believe we should help people, and we should control capitalism. But I also believe the government shouldn’t tell you what to do about religion, sex, pills, and damn near almost anything!
I believe you should help the poor, the sick, and the aged. Everybody should have equal rights, but I also believe the government has no job getting involved in religion, has no job being involved in sex. Who is the government to tell me what pills I should take? Mojo needs his medicine, and he needs it now!
Are there any contemporary rock bands you like?
Nixon: Nah, there’s nobody I can say right now, probably because I’m just too old. I’m sure there is. I’m sure there is some band that’s playing rock ‘n roll and playing wild, crazy music and making teenagers make bad decisions, but I don’t know who it is. I believe that’s always happened, it’s just every now and then it bubbles up.
You go back and look at the mid-‘60s and people say, ‘It was Stones, Beatles, and James Brown as 1, 2, and 3.’ Yeah, but you know Lulu and Petula Clark was #4, or [Staff Sgt.] Barry Sadler. There’s always been crap pop music. There’s always been sappy, sentimental songs. Rock ‘n roll in its truest form pokes through every now and then and then slinks back down.