The Philly-to-NYC band on their acclaimed fourth album, on the decade-long evolution that made it possible.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
A decade together as a band, and with three previous records already on the merch table, Jukebox the Ghost have subtly reinvented themselves with this fourth outing. The piano-soaked, hook-heavy music is still there, as are the soaring choruses. But this self-titled record (named so for good reason) is much more expansive, and personal, than anything the Indie pop group has done in the past.
The result is simply impressive; catchy while being lyrically personal, and big without coming off as overtly commercial. Far from being a fan-alienating record, this album will likely just grow their audience.
Singer/pianist Ben Thornwell spoke recently about the trio’s decade-long evolution, working with two producers on the latest record and why Jukebox the Ghost music may soon be heard everywhere from improve stages to cartoons.
BLURT: This is your fourth record and it’s the first one you guys have self-titled. Is there significance behind that decision?
THORNWELL: Yeah, absolutely. We worked on this record in a whole different way and spent so much time making the songs, and the process was unique in that there was a level of honesty… We came in with 50-odd songs for this record and we spent months and months whittling it down to the 11 that are there. Once we got down to those 11 we spent months and months arranging and taking them apart. It was different from the way we worked on past records and to us, it felt like a reinvention of who we are. We felt that we could have it self-titled because we were reasserting or reinventing who we are. So (that title) wasn’t a casual thing. This record sort of represents the next phase of who we are, so we thought that a self-title was appropriate.
It also hit me, just a song or two in, was how big this album sounds, production-wise. You guys have always had really big choruses and hooks in your music, but it seems like almost a Queen-vibe with this record.
When we were in the studio working on this one we did it completely backwards to how we normally do it. Normally we get in and use the first week to work on all the piano and drums and maybe some guitar and then we work on how to fit everything else in. Is there an organ or something else to put in behind the piano part? This time it was completely different. We didn’t even touch the drums or piano until the final weeks of recording. It was using all other instruments and testing out vocal patterns on 10 seconds of music trying to figure out the right way to treat it. What that ended up doing was it freed us up to take riskier creative decisions and arrangements we hadn’t done before and that manifests itself into bigger vocal takes and different sonic choices and instrumentation choices. We wanted to make the biggest and best record that we could and we did. I think that this record sounds bigger was a conscious decision.
You worked with Andrew Dawson and Dan Romer on the record. Was this your first time working with both of those guys?
Dan Romer did our last record, but this was our first time working with Andrew Dawson and it was his process that repaved the way we worked with Dan. So we started with Andrew and tore everything down and worked from the ground up. Then we moved on to Dan and showed him what we had down and he loved that process and he did the rest of the record.
Andrew has done some pretty diverse records – he doesn’t simply stick to one sound or specific genre. He worked with Kanye, he worked with fun. Is there a particular record of his that you heard and thought, “We really need to work with this guy”?
You know, it’s interesting, a lot of it was the fun record being so huge with what he did and having his hip hop ear was important to us as well. We hadn’t worked with anyone who had that sort of musical knowledge, not that we’re ever going to do a hip hop record, but we wanted to cross-pollinate genres and experiment with different ideas. The song that he did in its entirety is “Postcard” and I think that’s why there’s a really unique sound on the record, a bigger sound. It was great working with him; really inspiring.
There was a lot of talk around the lyrics around your last album. Those lyrics seemed so much more personal than your previous records and this new record seems to carry on with the theme of personal anecdotes in songs. As a songwriter, are you – or were you – ever hesitant to share your own experiences in lyrics?
You know, there’s a fine line between confessional writing and personal writing. Confessional writing can sometimes feel like people are reading a journal that they shouldn’t. I don’t think we really cross into that. I think as a songwriter you learn where to draw the line of what’s too personal and what isn’t. I think I’ve always been writing personal songs, but the decision ends up being what goes on the record… For this record in particular, no matter what, the best songs were going to be on the record regardless of what the topic matter was. For me, songwriting was always personal and you can write an incredibly personal song and it can be interpreted that way and then you can write a song that’s all third person and imagined and it can be read as the most personal song ever.
Have you ever held back or changed a song because it just seemed too revealing?
No, I’ve never edited for the sake of worrying that I’m sharing too much. In the act of writing a songs I may have been too literal and it doesn’t resonate, so it’s more interesting to add in a metaphor to better resonate with the listener.
The song “The Great Unknown” caught my attention on the first listen and it’s a song you co-wrote with Greg Holden. Is this your first time writing with someone outside of the band?
It wasn’t my first time writing with someone outside the band, but it was the first time (a Jukebox the Ghost) song was written with someone outside the band. He’s one of my best friends and we just got together in a room and wrote that song one afternoon. We weren’t thinking “Let’s write a Jukebox the Ghost song” we were just thinking about writing a great song. That sort of mindset was what was different about this record. We weren’t so precious about “this song has to be 100 percent mine; I have to write everything.” It was more about putting the best songs on the album. Tommy (Siegel, guitarist for JtG) and I have been writing with a lot of other people for other projects and it’s sort of opened up our eyes. There’s this whole other world of creativity and inspiration that you get from working with other people.
Just about a year ago you guys passed the decade mark…
Technically, I think it was about a week ago.
Well, happy anniversary. How has the band changed over that decade in terms of how you guys work together?
It couldn’t be more different. Really in the past two or three years we have grown so much as songwriters. The way we work together now, we can be honest and no one gets their feelings hurt. It’s huge. I think it’s really enabled us to have better songs. We’ve gotten older, let our guards down a bit; let our egos go away. I think the other guys would agree that we are getting along better than we have in the past. We’ve been together 10 years and we’re all good people and I think we’re lucky. In so many bands you have at least one crazy person and then if you shut them all in van for 10 years, something is gonna happen.
You’ve got the record coming out and you’re about to tour. Anything else you or the other guys are working on?
One exciting project that is still in the early stages… We’ve been in talks with Second City about doing a musical collaboration project with them.
Yeah, in Chicago, and that’s not fully set yet, but we’ve taken some early steps and we’re really excited about that. We also wrote a song for a cartoon show that’s going to be on Netflix before too long. What’s cool is these little opportunities keep popping up, so we’re staying busy and being creative in as many different ways as possible. Even as this record comes out and we tour, we’re still going to be looking at different ways to branch out and be creative.
Photo Credit: Eric Ryan Anderson.