YEP ROC 15 (Pt. 1): Jukebox The Ghost

Appearing Thursday, Oct. 11, at Cat’s Cradle
in Carrboro, NC, as part of Yep Roc’s 15th anniversary celebration. The
festival’s schedule can be viewed
online here.

 

BY
KLAUS NYMAN

 

Jukebox
The Ghost popped a rocking all-ages performance at Lincoln Hall in Chicago on July 8th in which the Brooklyn-based, pop-rock piano-based trio gave fans a taste of
their newest material. Their third full-length, Safe Travels (Yep Roc),
had been released just a month earlier, earning praise from the media,
including BLURT, which enthused thusly:

 

“It’s
hard to believe that this trio of Ben Thornewell (vocals/piano/accordion),
Tommy Siegel (guitar/vocals) and Jesse Kristin (drums), have been around for
nearly a decade now, but indeed they have – Jukebox The Ghost have been on to
something since their 2008 debut Let Live
& Let Ghosts
. They refined the sound on 2010’s Everything Under the Sun and the thirteen songs on the new record
seem to bring it all together. Safe
Travels
is just as whimsical and good-timey as the first two albums. [The
band members] proudly wear their pop influences on their sleeves and quite
frankly don’t care whether you like those influences or not. Amen.”

 

We
were able to grab and catch up with Thornewill prior to taking the stage in Chicago.

 

***

 

BLURT: The record has an overall consistency
in sound. Would you say there is more of a processed or electro-pop production
compared previous records?

THORNEWILL:
 major benefit when recording this record
was the amount of time we had to record it. We spent 8 months working, with
pauses in between, but had the opportunity to work a bit differently
production-wise and instrumentally. One of the main areas we were able to
improve with was the string arrangement. We had a string quartet on this
record, which gave the material more of an orchestra sound. We crafted the
tracks at a much slower pace too. We were able to go through each take
thoroughly and making sure it was exactly what we wanted before moving forward.

        Our record has uniqueness to us. We are
able to look back on our finished product and remember that there were specific
reasons for of our each final decisions. It’s something that we’re really proud
of.

 

How did the vocal harmonies add to the new
material?

I
believe it defines who we are as a band. Both Tommy and I write and sing, and
it’s fortunate for us that our voices blend together so well. Our voices
differ, but when brought together there’s a warmth present that isn’t there
when singing individually. We make a conscious effort when piecing the songs
together being aware of the tone and vibe we are setting while building each
part. Harmonizing is a wonderful way to illuminate melodies and a technic that
we try and utilize that places a strong emphasis on key words within each song.

 

What minor details do you feel have an
impact in your music? You mentioned strings playing a large role in this
record.

We
consider the strings portion a perk.  Although a major characteristic that
sets us apart is having two singers and songwriters, but what about the drummer
(laughs)? We have an extremely talented and hard-driven drummer and all
contribute to the final product.

        I’m a classically trained pianist,
which lays heavily into my piano parts, but also helps when not having a bass
player. Tommy and I, because of this, end up writing different parts than we
normally would, like if we had a bassist. It causes difficulty for us, but also
adds a distinct sound to our music. We constantly have to fill the absence of
having a bassist with guitar or piano.    

 

Are you the primary composer for JTG’s
material or is it a mutual effort?

It’s
a mutual effort. Tommy and I write separately and then bring our individual
songs in. Our selection process is based on what’s going to work best for the
whole of the record. We ask ourselves, “Does it keep the listener interested?”
By having two songwriters that have slightly different stylistic tendencies, we
end up with longer records that offer a wide variation of material. We never
set out with a certain amount of songs for each record. It’s all about what’s
going to make the best record by choosing the best songs we have written for
the record.  

 

Has the writing process for Safe Travels differed from the previous two records?

Our
writing is always very individualized, although Safe Travels was different. Our individual writing process
then went through a process within the band. Each member contributes his parts
to the songs for a final cut of the song brought to the group. We also took some
risks by including some slower songs that don’t immediately attach to our
previous records.  And we had the opportunity to use material written 5 or
6 years ago, which was refreshing. We felt more freedom to choose certain songs
we may not have otherwise chosen.

 

 What do you find is the most successful form
of composing?

We
don’t have a set formula for writing material and we don’t decide what kind of
a song we’re going to write before we write it. We bring songs to the table
that we are proud of. Jesse is incredibly talented at producing and is always
thinking how the production is going to work. This ways heavily on what the
material ends up sounding like.

        Inevitably our parts change when
tweaking vocal melodies or lyrics after we listen to what’s been recorded. Most
of the time this shapes what becomes a jukebox song. The take of the song is a
mutual effort, and not individual.   

 

Who do we have to thank for the album
artwork?

A
long-time friend we’ve known since high school, Chris Pereno. He’s an extremely
talented artist. He’s behind the artwork and photography on our last record as
well, which is why we choose to use him again. He gave us lots of different
versions and explored different options.
In the end he pinpointed exactly what we had in mind.  

 

Influences: I know people often compare JTG
to Ben Folds. Is it hard to always be compared to another artist?

This
is partly a stock answer. I listened to Ben Folds a ton in high school, and I
was a huge fan, I still am. However, when I listen to him I put more of an
effort trying NOT to sound like him rather than sounding like him. There are
only so many piano pop acts out there. That doesn’t give many points of
reference to choose from.

        Something interesting to me that has
popped up on this record, is being asked if Billy Joel has influenced our
writing. In our opinion this couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m not saying
anything bad about the guy. He’s a talented pianist and a great singer. This is
bound to happen, but there are only so many places an artist can go for piano
based pop-rock music. I’m just not a huge fan and his song writing hasn’t had
an influence me, or our music.

        One shouldn’t always go off the tip of
the tongue of the person reviewing or speaking about the music, no offense (laughs).

 

Have you guys ever been told that you remind
them of OK GO, Jon McLaughlin or The Killers?

This
fascinates me because these are all artists that I like and that I know. I
don’t listen to them on a regular basis, but there could be a similarity.

        We all come from very different places.
Fans are inundated with music these days, especially with such easy access. We
are always going to remind people of other artists, but things slip in whether
you want them to or not. I’ve never heard a singer, and said, that’s what I
want to sing like, or a pianist and thought that’s what I want to play like.

        When we write there’s a point when
something sounds good. We take those bits and pieces then make it sound like us.
It’s difficult, because the comparisons are never unfair, but it’s a necessity
when comparing music.

 

You and Tommy do an equal amount of singing on the first
record. However, for this record you’re predominantly the lead vocalist. How
are the vocal roles viewed within the band?

I
think it just goes back to what songs are going to make the best record. It all
depends who you talk to. There [are] Tommy fans and Ben fans. For Safe Travels I happened to come to
the table with more songs than Tommy did. It’s kind of funny, we worked with
Dan Romer, our producer, and he was annoyed with Tommy for not bringing more
songs to the table and poked at him a bit.

 

With the release of the album so recent,
what kind of response have fans been giving so far?

It’s
been a reactive response. We’ve had gigs like never before, meaning that while
playing fans are already singing the new material. I mean, the records been out
for a week! In the past it took a lot longer before we received a response like
this. We’re getting a response right off the bat; it’s ridiculous in a good
way. Most of all it’s really encouraging.

        We’re playing the entirety of the
record and there’s never a moment were our fans seem uninterested. It’s evident
they’re on our side, that they want to hear it and are present.

 

 With fans’ interaction through Instagram,
Facebook and other online outlets, how do you feel its best to communicate with
fans?

We
do everything and anything! This is with our label’s support and they’re complementary
of our online whatever. Sometimes for us, it’s posting some stupid things too.
We enjoy acting out of the ordinary and posting whatever comes to mind. We want
to truly engage our fans. We enjoy interacting with them, but not doing it
forcefully.

 

Do you feel some songs like, “Somebody,”
“Devils on Your Side,” or “Don’t let me fall behind” have potential for
synchronization licensing (Motion Picture Soundtracks)?

I
would say our music is really synch-able. We are working with an extremely
talented publisher and we are thankful that they agree with this. We always
hope for it, but all we can do is try and be patient. It’s a pretty
oversaturated market in the music industry. I think largely because it’s a
great way for bands to make money. We’ll see what happens. Our record has only
been out in the world for a couple of weeks (laughs).

 

How has this tour been going compared to
previous tours? Does it get more difficult or less?

We’re
fortunate to say it gets easier and easier. As the crowds get bigger and we
improve as performers, it becomes more rewarding for everybody. Everyone who’s
at the shows wants to be there. Our biggest fans have bought their tickets
early. This weekend is the first time we’ve played New York and both shows have SOLD OUT! We’ve
never done that before. It’s a confirmation in what we’re doing and it feels
great.

        It also gets easier as the shows get
bigger and as more people come. I know that’s sort of an obvious statement. I
realize this, but it’s much more fun when you come back somewhere and there’s
more people showing up than the last time through. Overall we’re playing to
larger audiences and having 600 shows in the books I feel real happy about
where were at.

 

 What keeps the motivation going on the road?

 Being
able to engage a crowd that’s on your side and wants to be there is
indescribably motivating. It’s not all about the Benjamin’s per se (laughs), or about having lots of people. We’ve done amazing shows
with only 60 people, but we want to be playing for as many people as possible.
That’s the nature of the beast.

 

Can you talk about the band dynamic on the
road?

 We
get along incredibly well. It’s like a brotherhood. We know each other better
than anyone else. We’ve been friends since freshmen year in college. It’s the
longest adult relationship that anyone of us has ever had. It’s that joke that
being in a band is similar to a marriage, but without any of the perks. We work
together, live together and eat together, but don’t do that other thing (laughs).  

 

Do you guys have a specific routine prior to
show time?

 This
is not a sponsorship or an endorsement call, but a Red Bull never hurts. We’re
not one of those bands that get in a huddle and sing “Kumbaya.” (laughs).

 

What does the future look like for JTG? Are
there any venues on your bucket-list to rock or any artist you guys want to
tour with?

 Sky’s
the limit!

        We would love to go on tour with a
larger act like Vampire Weekend, Foster The People, or GOTYE. They would all be
amazing. Our current tour continues through this summer and the fall. We are
playing Outside Lands
in San Francisco
and a few summer festivals we’re really looking forward to. We will continue
our tour and finish strong.  

 

 

[Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez]

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