The Legend Of Preacherman: How an Ex-IBM Repairman's Obscure, Far-Out Funk Made it to a David Byrne Label

Eric Welles-Nystrom
Preacherman

Years ago, his music developed a cult following among niche record collectors. Now he's entering the spotlight -- or at least getting as close to it as he's ever been.

His records go for $2,000 online. He spends his days caring for his 102-year-old mother, purportedly the oldest woman in Oakland. This year, at 72, after half a century of recording and performing music, he got his big break: He signed to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop music label. And he believes alien beings are trying to take over humanity.

The man I speak of is Tim Jones. He has also at various points been known as Midi Man, Ironing Board Band, T.J. Hustler, and Preacherman. But known is probably a stretch. Up until now, Jones has primarily existed in the background. In the ‘70s, he played in a couple of short-lived bands. In the ‘80s, he performed behind his sage, sinister-sounding ventriloquist dummy, T.J. Hustler, and in the sorts of Las Vegas lounges where music was secondary to booze and socializing. In recent years, he’s put on a karaoke show at Bay Area clubs where he plays the hits and you sing.     

On Friday (Oct. 12), though, Jones took the spotlight — or, at least, got as close to it as he’s ever been — with the release of the Preacherman album Universal Philosophy. It’s a synth-heavy fusion of funk and soul that is undeniably groovy, highly mystical, and enjoyably trippy. Over thick, womping bass, spacey organs, and a constellation of other far-out sounds, Preacherman alternates between simply letting loose (several songs begin with an enthusiastic “Pow!”) and probing the existential (“Tell me why/ when the world’s so full/ people so empty?”). Some of the tracks take the form of a dialogue with T.J. Hustler. Like any good preacher, Jones’s spirit never wavers; he appears to be having a tremendous amount of fun in his astral cathedral.

Listening to Universal Philosophy now sounds like hearing the future filtered through the past — like watching the original Blade Runner in 2018. With its bass-heavy aesthetic and flirtations with the psychedelic, Preacherman comes off like a musical ancestor of genre-bending mutli-instrumentalist Thundercat or even psych-rock guru Tame Impala. But it’s unlikely those artists are aware of the former’s music. The seven songs on the album were pulled from two CD-Rs of material that’s barely been heard to this point. Luaka Bop president Yale Evelev, who put together the compilation, estimates that the original CD-Rs date back to the late ‘90s or early 2000s.

But Evelev isn’t sure. Nothing seems certain when it comes to Tim Jones: How did his records become so sought after? What’s the deal with all the nicknames? What was that about aliens?

Throughout an hour-long phone interview, Jones responded to many of the questions I asked him with a perfunctory explanation and then a tangent about how he built his instruments over the years — he used to be an IBM repairman and put those skills to use building keyboard-and-drum-machine hybrids — or about what he thinks is really going on: that “the folktales and fairytales was right”; that strange dreams are “transmissions”; that we’re surrounded by snake people, reptilians. (He did explain the nicknames: He would change his name every ten years as he changed his instrument.)

As best as I can tell, in 1979 Jones self-released approximately 50 LPs of his T.J. Hustler Metaphysical Synthesized Orchestra album Age of Individualism. They found their way to soul enthusiasts through California garage sales, some of the music was uploaded to YouTube and then Jones gained enough of a following there (though none of his videos have more than a couple thousand views) for the LPs to make waves among niche collectors. One of those collectors was Andy Noble, who played bass in Luaka Bop-backed Kings Go Forth before the band split up. Noble introduced Evelev to Jones’s music on a hunch that Preacherman would be right for Luaka Bop, which specializes in world music made by outsider artists.

And Noble was right. “I immediately liked the music — really interestingly electronic and dancey, and the words were unique,” Evelev recalls. “But it wasn't until we met [with Jones] and we picked up his little book of philosophy [also called Universal Philosophy] and started talking to him a lot that we realized he had a whole philosophy. I couldn't tell you what that is.” 

“It's all universal, that's what my philosophy is,” Jones says.

Meaning?

“All these things and the stuff that's happening, it's really a process to move people to another space. The whole thing isn't done by people, it's done by the universe itself, which people call God, [but] I call the Creator… So my philosophy is I begin to see things like the whole area we're living on Earth is just a big trick bag to make you move to outer space. And that's what we're doing. It's kind of like the old Aristotle philosophies in the past, ‘I think therefore I am,’ that's true. That's really what it is. Thought waves are making you what you are. As long as your thought waves are powerful you ain't going nowhere.” 

Things don’t get much more coherent from there. Jones’s philosophy synthesizes ‘60s hippy conspiracy theories, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (he’s not a Scientologist but says that “the book is perfect”), and things Jones picked up working at IBM and driving cabs and limousines in Las Vegas. If you squint, you can find some truth: His old fears of human beings becoming obsolete, of everybody “running around with radio waves, drones, [where] nobody can have a thought in their head” have basically come to fruition.

But don’t squint. The more abstract and fantastical Jones’ theories, the grander his mystique. And that’s the allure. The internet brought Jones out of obscurity, but the wealth of knowledge we now have at our fingertips is what makes his mysteriousness enticing. “This is a time everyone can find out stuff, but yet you can only go so far in finding out stuff,” says Evelev. “So when stuff becomes in a way harder to find out, it takes on another psychic power.” Pow!


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