Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound with a mane of snakes, serves as the protector of Hades. It’s a menacing creature in the wide world of Greek Mythology and has been a staple of ancient art dating back to the 6th century BCE. Its main role was to prevent those in the underworld from ever returning to the land, acting as a gatekeeper for eternal doom.
‘THREE HEADS*’, the first song on Jean Dawson’s latest album CHAOS NOW*, is akin to Cerberus not only in name but in energy. Drums crash with the bellow of the beast’s stomping movements; the polymerisation of roaring guitars and the artist’s shouting vocals are reminiscent of its assertive stature. But in many ways, this song assumes the role of Hercules’ 12th and final labour, where he bare-handedly drags Cerebrus to the surface, exposing him to the world outside hell. In our hour-spanning conversation over zoom, Jean describes the origins of this song stemming from ‘‘Staring at myself in the mirror for over 5 minutes, trying to identify three personas.”
What are the three personas you found?
I saw my ego, a clown, and a bedwetter. The ego represents a certain voice inside that isn’t real, fueling a competitive nature that leads me to do things that aren’t always for the better, even when I know it’s lying to me for whatever reason. The clown relates to the fact that life is innately serious because we’re on this earth with a time limit. This time we have speaking to each other right now is something that I feel is a privilege, but at the same time, I feel like you could be doing anything else right now and it would be more valid than talking to me about what I think in my head. The clown is where you’re clapping and bouncing a ball on your nose, trying to do a show for whatever reason. Lastly, the bedwetter is a call back to the fact that when I was a kid, I wet the bed. I drew these personas, and you should have seen my room; it looked like a crazy person lived there. In a dismissive type of way, I thought I was losing my grip, but when I truly began to identify them, I knew they would become a vehicle.
Thus, Jean Dawson’s personal Cerberus is unleashed, and the chaos of this album begins. These three personas have caught glimpses of the above-surface light in his previous projects Pixel Bath and Bad Sports, but this is the first time they’ve stepped foot into this world. Of course, they run rampant, with their movements inspiring music that cannot be defined by genre.
By releasing the hounds of his inner consciousness, Jean taps into pure creativity, which he articulates through ear-catching melodies and an assortment of layered synths, jangly guitar strums, and ravenous power chords. Each mark the beast’s curiosity makes manifests another emotion for these personas to tackle. The next realisation comes in the form of transparency on ‘GLORY*’.
On ‘GLORY*’ it feels like you find contentment in unabashedly being yourself. How did you reach that point?
I think that comes from growing up as a chunky kid. When you’re full-bodied at that age, you ask yourself things like “Am I funny?” Because you feel like you need that extra character trait; you can’t just be the chunky kid. You eventually reach a point where you realise that you have nothing to hide from the world. I’m always going to have things I care about, and I’m always going to have insecurities, but what am I actually afraid of? You hide things from people you’re afraid of, but I’m afraid of nobody but god. So now, I give people everything, and they can decide if they like me or not. On ‘GLORY*’, when I say things like ‘My ex-girlfriend thinks that I’m fucked up,” it refers to her leaving me because I started taking antidepressants, and she didn’t know how to deal with my mental health issues. I’m not mad at her nor do I blame her, because I went through a lot of traumatising shit in my childhood, and I do fit it in the general sense of fucked up. Then the “My mom thinks that I keep a gun tucked” line comes from talking to her about the fact that I carry a weapon because I’m scared to die. The transparency in my music comes from me being unable to embellish my truth because this shit is not a movie. The reality is I live in a world where things are unsafe, and people need to take medication. When the drums came in on that song, I felt emotions in my chest that were hard to navigate but came out in a natural way.
When wielding truth, understanding becomes something that’s lusted for. Jean’s Cerberus travels the terrain of CHAOS NOW*, unashamed of the three heads it bears, but looking to find out how it came to be its reality. In order to move forward, the personas of the beast need to look back, heading down the path to the track ‘POSITIVE ONE NEGATIVE ONE*’.
This track serves as an essential flashback to Jean’s tumultuous family ties. He tells me that it’s a song about both “his dad and the devil” while acknowledging that they are vastly different. It hearkens back to his childhood in navy housing in San Diego. He’d experienced his parents argue, a constant which eventually resulted in divorce. While these circumstances can be interpreted as potential origins for the three personas he discovered, blame is not the utility of this song. Instead, it’s a tale of an internal battle and the process of comprehending struggle.
Can you explain the symbolism you use to deal with the subject matter in this song?
As I started to peel back layers of my childhood, I realised that I had always been this hyper-anxious kid, and I was afraid a lot. It felt more cathartic to write about it in a pseudo-mythical way, so I wanted to use my dad to be the main character in this song, where he’s dealing with things upstairs in his brain, and downstairs in his heart. The relationship I’ve had with my pops has allowed me to understand that he was a troubled kid, and the reason why he’s a certain way is because of certain situations and environments. That also relates to me, because I was also a troubled kid, and am constantly in this flux of arguing with my heart and brain. The song is about the human condition, coming to grips with your demons, and understanding that you are going to have to fight yourself, and that’s about where you know all the weaknesses of your opponent. So the release at the end where I’m screaming “If you want it, you can come and get it, I’m downstairs,” is the heart letting the brain know that it’s right there; the love is only a floor below, and it really hates how the brain thinks.
It can be hard to find this sort of empathetic context about a situation that has caused you trauma. Was it an internal struggle for you to forgive him for those times?
100%, that’s like the whole story arc with my father. I think as I’ve gotten older, and become more aware of myself, I’ve realised that I have a lot of the same conditions and triggers as him, and as a result, I’m more aware of his adversity. It was an internal struggle for a while, but now I have a beautiful relationship with him. I know you can’t match wounds because they come in different sizes, but in analysing myself I’ve been able to see the things that make us similar, and that’s allowed me to view the world differently. I’m thankful my dad has been himself for a long time because I can now figure out the generational issues that we often don’t talk about as people. I’ve had enough time to witness things in him and myself to learn how to prevent them. We’re so alike to our parents in so many ways, and if you don’t recognise it, that generational shift comes with you, and it becomes the problem of your children. My whole stance on existence is that we only have a limited time here, so we should take the time we’re granted to be as good as we can, and max out all our points. That way, when the time comes we’re ready to go.
With an understanding of where it came from and why it is the way it is, Jean Dawson’s Cerberus has found the direction it was seeking. The beast now exists within an open world, scaling every summit of CHAOS NOW*’s sonic mountains, looking to max out its stats. No longer is it bound to the lugubrious darkness of the underworld, and the three personas that make up its heads now serve as superpowers. On songs like ‘BAD FRUITS’, this reinvigorated force promotes the fact that it’s okay to own what makes you unique, acting as Jean Dawson aptly stated on Instagram, a “proverbial sludge hammer to doors for kids that not only look like me, but feel like me.”
In identifying with his Cerberus, Jean Dawson has honed in on its purpose and wants this experience to serve as a call-to-arms for a whole generation of Hercules moments. And while he stays aware of life’s time limit throughout, referencing it on tracks like ‘SCREW FACE*’ and “PORN ACTING*’, he comes across a new realisation on the album’s closer ‘PIRATE RADIO’ that his labour of love could outlast his physical incarnation.
‘PIRATE RADIO’ punctuates CHAOS NOW*’s conclusion with the lyrics “My paddle is broken, I’m out in the open, I’ll never die.” What does that immortality represent to you?
This song is about the men in my family, and there is importance placed on the ocean in my immediate lineage. My father was in the navy, and my brother partakes in triathlons, where long-distance swimming is involved. So when writing ‘PIRATE RADIO’, I’m thinking about the legacies my father and brother will leave behind. For me, it’s my brother’s role as a dedicated problem solver and my father’s analytical intelligence. This made me think about the immortality that comes with music, and how incredibly important it is to me. I know for a fact that I’m going to die, but I hope to instil information in my art that lives beyond me. People like Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and David Bowie left ideas and images behind when they transitioned, and those are things that carry us through life. Freddie Mercury for me left behind the willingness not to be stifled by what people think and what his identity was. Prince left behind the audacity to be great and to fully lean into your ego. Michael Jackson left behind a world that dances, the ability to both make people dance and cry. So I feel like when you become a musician, it’s tagged with the fact that everything we do right now is going to live well beyond our years. It’s not even just limited to music; this sense of immortality echoes across all facets of the human experience. So while I know I can’t actually defeat death, I’m going to try and use what I’m doing now as a loophole to do so.