Jack McDowell was known in Major League Baseball as being as intimidating as Dale Earnhardt was on the race track. He was coined with the nickname “Black Jack,” coincidently Dale Earnhardt’s legendary racecar color.
McDowell in his six-foot-five-inches lanky frame could knock you off your feet with his 90-mile-per-hour plus fastball and not blink an eye. Now after retiring from the league that made him famous, he still is knocking people of their feet with his band Stickfigure.
In late 2003 Jack released Memento Mori, his fourth album, one he chose to release himself.
“I haven’t been satisfied with any of the smaller labels putting my stuff out,” McDowell told me “With the chance of sounding like a control freak. I like to control how my music is being portrayed to people. If someone doesn’t understand me completely, or hasn’t had the history with this band and my past records, I have found they probably don’t get it as well as I do.”
Memento Mori is one of the cuts on the album and it means “Remember We Must Die” in Latin, but it isn’t meant to be perceived as a dark tile. “It’s actually not a dark at all. To me it’s a reminder of celebrations of life…remember we must die, so live!” Jack explained.
Ape of the Kings was Stickfigure’s last release, which had them stop at the Highdive in Champaign during their tour. It was released on What Are Records? out of Colorado and did fairly well.
But this record is different from the last and probably the most diverse record McDowell has recorded to date.
“With Ape of the Kings it was the first record where I gave into my pop side wholeheartedly,” Jack insisted. “Instead of straining to uniqueness, I ran with every basic pop chord structure or idea that was coming to me during the time of AOTK.”
Memento Mori has three songs that were started during the sessions for AOTK. “Starting to Raise,” “Willing to Send,” and “Mirrored Eyes.” They just seemed like they needed more of a rock record to live on, and I feel Memento Mori is that record.”
Jack, who is the primary songwriter in the band, cultivates his songwriting from many different aspects. Some of his new songs have been sitting around for years waiting for the right album to be put on. But then again, some of the tracks he writes come about quicker.
“Open Yours,” which Jack says is one of the strongest on the album, was written on an acoustic guitar in one early morning studio session.
“I usually write the entire record prior to holing up in the studio. One night I had slept on the floor after tracking late and woke to the chord progression from the chorus in my head. The music flowed out and the words quickly followed. While it is not the craziest of progressions, the piece as a whole is filled with a passion that was burning that morning,” McDowell explained.
In Jack’s catalog, he has four releases with Stickfigure and two with his previous band V.I.E.W. He has evolved into a very impressive musician playing guitar as his main instrument and bass on a few tracks on the new album. But crafting a good song is what McDowell really looks to improve on with each release.
“I’ve never really concentrated on becoming a supersonic guitar player. I’ve mainly concentrated on advancing my songwriting and studying the recording process to see the subtleties that can spice songs up.”
Memento Mori is littered with catchy, driving guitars accompanied by heartfelt lyrics that have become the strength of Stickfigure. They step it up a notch with the new release that points to influences from early Tom Petty to The Replacements, and even at times hints of Elvis Costello shine through.
To achieve the sound he strives for, McDowell, once again, took matters into his own hands. He teamed up with a friend to make their own recording studio that wasn’t for the first time in his basement.
“I had a pretty good collection of gear that made up my home studio. I recorded the last three Stickfigure records on that gear! But while I was tracking and mixing Ape Of The Kings, Daniel Field (manager of Pete Yorn, Audioslave etc.) hooked me up with Tom Weir who owned a small studio in the San Fernando Valley.
“Tom is a great guy and as an engineer his talents were being stifled in a small studio, and I was already renting out a space in San Diego to house my ‘home studio. I told Tom to look for a bigger space for us to combine our stuff and upgrade the whole deal. He found a great building in Studio City and we have been open for close to two years now.”
The studio entitled Lingo Studios is not just for Jack and Tom to work on Stickfigure release, they have also branched out and worked with some impressive musicians along the way.
“Tons of people record there. It’s just starting to get more known in L.A. Tom recently recorded some and entirely mixed the new Toots duets record that has Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Gwen Stefani, Keith Richards, and Bonnie Raitt etc. on it. Neil Young and the Crazy Horse guys have used my room, and the Buzzcocks have rehearsed there.”
It is obvious McDowell has a pretty full plate of music in front of him. From writing, recording, doing graphics, releasing his own material, and running a studio all the while being a kick ass father. So what is a “typical” day like for this former major leaguer current rocker?
“There are a lot of different typical days. I am divorced and have split custody of my three children so every move revolves around that schedule. I coach my boys’ basketball team with my father, as I did their baseball team this season. He’s in all his glory, and we are one for one with a baseball championship and look to keep it going this basketball season! I also write a baseball column for Yahoo! and that requires time and some travel. Oh, and I also have this new record out that I will attempt once again to bring to club land this year!”
A lot of songs and miles later, the 1993 Cy Young Award winner is still doing what he loves to do. Whether it is rocking on stage with his band, throwing fast balls or being the coach of his kids’ team, Black Jack is one class act.