Jake La Botz is an actor and musician from Chicago. He has released six albums under his own name and toured internationally and famously around American tattoo shops. The first time you see him play knocks you out. Nobody really picks a guitar like Jake anymore; he learned from some of the best Chicago bluesmen that ever lived.
He’s also an actor, with past roles in Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory, the remake of Rambo, which also featured two of his songs, Lonesome Jim, Sinners and Saints, and Fully Loaded, among others. He also has parts in the upcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Walter Salles’ version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road — he’ll head to the Cannes Film Festival later this month for the premiere of that one. The Los Angeles Times recently called his performance as “The Shape,” the Satan-esque narrator of Stephen King and John Mellencamp’s just wrapped musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, “slithering, salacious, manipulative, delightful” and The New York Times said the show “comes alive” in his “every bravura entrance.” As one of the actors in that show, I can attest: people went nuts for the guy.
His history is as authentic and roller-coaster wild as he is now generous and calm.
You grew up in Chicago, right?
Yeah, I grew up with my dad. He was a masters degree dropout, a socialist. He was in SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] in the 60s. I was born in San Diego and we moved back to Chicago when I was three. And my dad was this self-made intellectual guy. He was probably a teacher’s assistant or something when I was a little kid. He had a lot of different gigs, he eventually became a truck driver.
The idea of being a socialist even then was all about infiltrating the industrial workplace – this way of life. Like a lot of grandiose socialists, they thought they’d be the leaders of the revolution. It’s made me pretty bitter about the hardcore leftist scene these days, at least from growing up in that world.
Was he an artist at all?
He was too dogmatic, I think, to ever be an artist full time. There’s something about really dogmatic people, where being an artist isn’t really possible. Art has to transcend dogma. He was one of those guys where — things were very black and white. And art can’t really be expressed in black and white. But he did have dreams of being a poet. I remember his room was plastered with rejection notices…
So he was really trying to get his stuff published?
Yeah, he was trying to be a poet. But he ended up becoming a journalist. He’s a great journalist, he writes a lot of books now about the labor movement and labor unions in the United States and Latin America. Very academic stuff. Things you’d find in libraries, universities. He did a lot of things to help Teamsters and Teamsters unions.
When did you start playing music?
I started playing guitar when I dropped out of high school. I was a drama major in a fine arts program. I’d been totally obsessed with theater from the age of about 8 to about 13.
Where had you picked up the theater bug?
I just remember loving to make up stories with my friend, this kid Daryl who was basically like my brother. We’d make up stories, perform them for people. And then when I was old enough I would usher at theaters in Chicago. I bought a secondhand suit, auditioned for community theater shows.
What was the first play you ever saw?
I remember The Seagull. That was probably the first play I caught.
Was Steppenwolf around yet?
They’d just started right next door to my grammar school in a basement of a building called the Jane Adams Center. I remember seeing their hand-painted sign every day when I walked to school. Right around ’76, ’77. I also went to the Court Theater, the Goodman, a string of theaters on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. I went to see plays at all those places before I dropped out of school.
Why’d you drop out?
To do drugs. Punk rock was happening, I was hanging around that scene. I liked my drama class but I didn’t go to any other class, and I got hardcore into drinking and drugs. Then I stole a car when I was 15 and drove across the country and wound up in Denver with a buddy of mine. We ditched the car in Trinidad, Colorado on the New Mexico border and slept under a bridge. We stayed in a hobo camp with these two guys Danny and Cody. We were going to hop a freight train, but it was freezing. It was November and we were freezing our asses off. Some hippie dude gave me some big bag of weed and I was trading that for, you know…money. Food. We stayed afloat for a couple weeks, but I decided to go back to Chicago.
To do what?
I got a job plastering and painting with a couple guys I knew. Started doing construction work. I went back to school again for a second or two. Went back to a little liberal arts school called Shimer College. They had this Great Books program — you start with the Greeks, work your way up to the present and western thought.
But you didn’t like it so much.
I couldn’t get into it. I remember a few one-liners, I think. Like, “The gods gave us a bit of paranoia so we could see a little bit of the truth.” That was Aristotle.
Do you remember if your aspirations were artistic at that point? Had music come into play?
I think I wanted to be a writer at that point. My first real hero in life was my grandpa, Jenks. He was a hobo during the depression. So he — he was a cowboy from Wyoming — he’d traveled all over the country, including Alaska on freight trains in the 1930s. And his life was the most exciting thing I’d ever heard of. I was obsessed with his stories. I was obsessed with winos and street characters and guys in my neighborhood, to be around their stories. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to get out there and do it. And then later, I’m playing guitar, those old blues guys. It was the same thing.
You wanted to be a singing, traveling hobo.
Yeah, basically. I read the beats, read Nelson Algren, a great Chicago writer. Jack London. Whoever. I was reading adventure stories. I thought, “I want to live the life these guys lived.”
Since I was a kid, I was obsessed with really sad music. I would sit alone and listen to it for hours and hours alone. I would go to the library and read books and listen to records, and then try to live out the life of the person I thought I should be. Based on the things I listened to and read.
That’s kind of what everyone does in high school, to some extent, right? Try to be the person they think they’d maybe like to be…
There’s something totally honest and pure about the desire — that actually does speak to who you are and what you need to do with your life. Often times I think we compare what we feel inside to what things look like out there, and we think we have to follow some set of rules. But it doesn’t ever work. If we try to fit into some pre-existing thing, it won’t work. Because there is no pre-existing Lucas, you know. So how does that work? Your own experience is completely bizarre, it makes no sense at all. But that’s what you have to learn to trust.
We start with some kind of delusion and we go from there. Some rock star or whoever. But no matter what we do, no matter which way we go, we figure it out.
So you left school to try out this adventurous life.
I was hanging around punk bands in Chicago when I was 14 or 15. I learned a few chords then from a few musicians. But meanwhile I’m listening to all these prewar-era blues musicians, and watching these street musicians who played on Maxwell street, this great open air market where all these blues guys got their start. And as I traveled, I’d meet street musicians in places like the bay area — this guy Johnny Guitar Knox. He was a heroin junkie, too. Like me, at the time. And then when I was back in Chicago, in my early 20s, I started to spend a lot of time with “Honeyboy” Edwards. He was good friends with Robert Johnson, one of the real original Delta [blues] guys.
How’d you get in his good graces?
I stole a record of his from a store. And I listened to it. I paid him back later, by the way. But I loved the way he sang and played. And then I saw his name in the paper, saw he was still alive, he was in his late 70s or so. He just died last year at 96.
This is more than 20 years ago when I first saw him play. I might have been underage and I snuck into a bar to hear him for the first time. And then I started playing gigs, too. There were only a few clubs where I could play that kind of music, really, this original style of blues, not that tourist style of blues. So in the black community it was still alive then, but it’s more or less not alive anymore in Chicago. I met those guys playing at this place called Mama Rosa’s Blues Lounge.
Were there any other white guys in their early 20s hanging around there?
No, not really. [Laughs.] Couple other guys who could play that stuff a little bit. I mean, I wasn’t very good, but I was so willing to be THE guy that I’d just show up and be the guy.
How’d you get the balls to do that?
I did a lot of heroin. That helped.
But I got to be really good friends with those guys. And this one guy I was closest with, Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis. He’d learned to play guitar from John Lee Hooker. And I would go to his place in these projects at Madison and Ashland and I would go visit him once every week or two and just hang out and drink. We’d get in the car and drive around, maybe set up on the street and play, make some money. We’d go into bars and ask to play a few songs in exchange for some drinks.
How old was he?
Late 60s, early 70s. I was in my 20s. He was a drunk, I was a drunk, it was a pretty good fit. Later on I took him to play a festival in Mississippi, he hadn’t been back there in years. We walked into a barbershop in Clarksdale to see this guy, “Wade, the singing blues barber.” We walked in and Wade just said, “Deacon Thompson!” And [Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis] looked at me and just said, “You don’t know nothing about that, boy. I was a deacon in the baptist church till my guitar started talkin about ‘baby, please don’t go.'” Like his guitar made him do it.
That’s amazing. Were you working at all during this time? Odd jobs?
Before I was a full blown drug addict, I’d do a lot of residential construction stuff. I did some industrial construction, too, in Gary, Indiana, with my uncle. We worked at an oil refinery. That was when I was 19.
Were you still enjoying your lifestyle of constantly moving around?
Like, where was the romance? Yeah, well, the romance was waning. The thing about drug addiction is, the romance starts to wain. You become so focused on the one thing that occupies all your time and energy. I mean, I had my first major heroin overdose when I was 22 in San Francisco. I was pronounced dead by the paramedics, but they tried everything and I finally came to. And I got clean for about a month. Around the first Gulf conflict. 1990, I guess? God, listen to that.
“Back in the first Gulf War…”
I sound like such an old man. But right, so in my 20s, I was taking a creative writing class at a community college, with the drummer from Green Day, actually. He was in that class. But I was clean for a month, and of course then a friend comes to town, we go have a drink… and then I’m just gone. We went on some road trip up to Seattle, I don’t even remember. I remember there was a moose in the road.
I had a similar fever dream involving a moose in the road. In Vermont. My freshman year of college.
It’s scary. They just kind of stand and look at you. You gotta wait it out. But yeah, so things went on like this for a while. I started working again and I’d practice guitar on my lunch breaks at the oil refinery. The other guys would go play dominos and I’d go play guitar. I’d practice every day for 2 hours.
You worked a lot of jobs like that.
Yeah, the thing about working a lot is you learn how to appreciate your free time. I had another job writing obituaries, one driving a MediCar – a non-emergency ambulance. Lots of weird little jobs.
Did you ever end up somewhere for a long period of time where you wanted to stick around?
Well, I started getting paid to play music. I had a girlfriend who I lived with in Chicago. But our drug addiction was going downhill. So I’d go play in the subway, make a few hundred bucks and go out a spend it. You could have somebody meet you down there.
When did you leave Chicago?
I caught my girlfriend in bed with someone else, so I left. I ended up in L.A. which was the last place in the world I ever thought I’d be. But I just ran out of road, you know? I ended up in this SRO hotel, got a room in exchange for playing once a week. A Welfare office, dope spot right there. All kind of cool. Free place to live, free booze and drugs. I started meeting these showbiz types who would hand me movie scripts and had some buddy who ran a record label or whatever.
How were you meeting these guys?
Playing shows, around town. There’s such a lack of authenticity in Los Angeles so someone new comes to town and people come to prey on them. Like they’re fresh meat. It was before the dot-com crash and there was still money. And I had a real daily drug habit at this point.
It hadn’t gotten any better?
It was the worst it ever was. I also started smoking crack because heroin didn’t do anything anymore and I wanted to feel something. I’d do both at the same time. My thing was to have as many balloons as I could get of heroin, a bunch of valium, some booze, and some crack rock. I’d have all that stuff there and that was the stuff that would save me for a while, save me from going insane. But then you feel like Plan B is going to have to come into affect soon. And plan B was suicide.
So it got to be pretty scary.
At the same time, I’d go play these private parties for showbiz people and make a lot of money. I’d have meetings with these record label guys and I’d hustle them for 20 bucks, whatever I could get out of them. I burned a lot of bridges.
I cared, but I couldn’t care when I was dope sick. I was trying to work both ends. Like, “Yeah I’d love to talk about what I want to do for your label, but could I get 20 bucks right now?” I could never quite make it work.
So where did acting start to play into all this?
I met Steve Buscemi when I was out there. I crashed a movie premiere, “Escape from LA.” That’s kind of ironic. But I had a buddy who was good friends with Steve. And we went to this party and he was a really nice guy. And I invited him out to a gig at some sleazy Armenian coke bar I was playing at called the White Horse.
Yeah, right? But he was cool enough to come out. He was also trying to get a movie off the ground called Animal Factory. Steve was doing Con Air, working with all these ex-con actors. And he said he was doing this prison movie and, “I’d love to write a character based on you. Is that OK?” And I was like, “Hell yeah!” And it took 3 years for that movie to get made, but actually that’s when I got clean. I finally got clean.
What year was that, when it finally got made?
Had you caught the acting bug full on then?
Music was still my number one thing. I thought the movie was a happy fluke. Animal Factory wasn’t a big hit. It was big in France but did nothing here. But word of mouth spread a little. Casting directors, other actors start to hear about me and I got other work once in a while. The same casting director on Animal Factory cast Rambo so they remembered me for that.
Did you meet Stallone?
Yeah he came in to my audition and was like, “Hey, can you carry a 200-pound-man through the jungle?” And “Can you put on 15 pounds? Cause you’re gonna lose it in the jungle.”
“In the jungle.”
Right. So he puts me on a plane to Thailand, to the jungle. To shoot Rambo.
Were you making all your living off music before this?
I was, but barely. I could pay the rent. I wasn’t going out to eat much. I wasn’t touring yet at that point. But then I got hip to the Internet. Around 2002, 2003. And I started getting email from people who wanted me to come play in their towns. And it was kind of a burden in a way because I didn’t have a booking agent. I had a couple of big shot managers — one guy who managed Dr. John, The Gypsy Kings, couple big name acts. Another guy who managed…like Tom Petty, Billy Idol. Those guys both tried for a couple months to get something done. You know, they have an idea, they try it, it doesn’t work, see ya later.
Why didn’t it work?
One guy had me open for Dr. John a couple times. And from that I opened up for Ray Charles, Etta James. You know, I’ve had gigs playing for eight thousand people.
You would open for Ray Charles and you can’t use that to further your career?
Who you’ve opened for doesn’t really help anything. Pretty much any musician can write a biography and say, “I’ve shared the stage with so and so,” and it doesn’t really mean anything, except just to say you’ve had the experience. Plus at the same time the music business is going down, labels are going down, it’s harder and harder to get signed. It became clear that it’s becoming a do-it-yourself world.
So I made a record on my own in 2005, and then I made this tour playing at tattoo shops. I thought, where are my fans? Who are my fans? And I thought a lot of them are these indie movie fans, alternative lifestyle people. I’d been playing once a week at this one shop in L.A and I thought, I’d met so many famous tattoo guys around the country, and my music had kind of spread that way. And lo and behold, these [owners] were interested.
So I did that for 5 years straight. Not non-stop but a few months out of each year.
Were you touring a lot?
Yeah, I started touring in Europe around that point. I’d filled in for somebody — I think Guy Davis — at this festival in Belgium. And that kind of got me known a bit over there. People started asking me to play other shows.
When did you stop working other jobs aside from music and acting?
Soon as I was smart enough to find girlfriends who made more money than I did. Just like every musician. Don’t you know that? [Laughs.] No, I would occasionally work when I had to. The last time I had a regular job was probably 2001. I was a delivery driver. And the funny thing was, I was dating a girl who was working for someone who always had to be at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. And we got to live there for two months. And I had this shitty little car I’d bought for $500, I would come home from delivering whatever I was delivering in my uniform, and I’d come home and get greeted by the staff and order up food from room service, then go upstairs and go swimming with Sting, you know, or Liam Neeson.
It was really strange.
L.A is a weird place, huh?
I think of it as kind of a constant pyramid scheme. Like, will we buy into each other’s shit?
Now, with Ghost Brothers, your life has come back around in a weird way. Back to doing theater, which you loved when you were little.
I feel like I’ve come full circle. I feel like having this job was getting paid to have acting lessons. You know, I’ve done a couple dozen films, but I’ve learned so much from doing this. Creating a character in this way and sustaining it over a long period of time. I keep learning more and more every night.
Do you want to keep acting? Is that as important to you now as music?
Well I still don’t have an agent. Laura, [the casting director for Ghost Brothers], she just found me somehow through word of mouth. She’d brought me in for another show a few years before and she remembered me. But that’s kind of how things have panned out. I’d had a few meetings like ten years ago with agents [in L.A] and the way they treated me, I don’t know…I just thought, “fuck these people.”
That can happen with those meetings.
A few years ago I was living with the actress Melissa Leo in New Orleans. She was shooting Treme and I rented the downstairs of this house. And this casting director there had brought me in for a few things and I ended up getting a couple movie gigs. I just kept getting lucky.
When you get acting gigs that go on for a few months at a time, I can’t really hide from the fact that I’m a semi-professional actor.
So will music fall back a little?
I want to tour less. I want to have a home life.
Some artists would probably kill to have your past. It’s almost quintessential in a way, you couldn’t have written it any more authentic. Do you look back and regret any of it?
I don’t regret a thing. But I do wish I hadn’t wasted my 20s. I could have, I don’t know, at least been nicer to people if nothing else. But I think it happened the only way it could have happened. And I came out really lucky every time. I should have died. I crashed so many cars, so many overdoses, I fell off a roof one time. I’ve been shot at. I’ve had so many bad situations and I just feel really lucky to be alive.
Not to mention I’ve found a way to go out and do what I do and connect with people.
Interview by Lucas Kavner
Photo by William Claxton