JUKEBOX THE GHOST
- January 2015 -
HAVE A BEER WITH JUKEBOX THE GHOST
Pianist Ben Thornewill, guitarist Tommy Siegel and drummer Jesse Kristin first came together in 2003 as undergraduate students at George Washington University. Sporting a quirky, brainy pop sound that took its cues from the likes of Ben Folds and They Might Be Giants, the three logged several years together under a different name, the Sunday Mail, before rebranding themselves Jukebox the Ghost in 2005. Following graduation, they released their debut album, Let Live & Let Ghosts, and relocated to Philadelphia.
Boosted by positive reviews, Jukebox the Ghost began touring in earnest, first as the opening act for one of their biggest influences (Ben Folds) and then alongside some of their pop-minded contemporaries. By early 2010, they’d signed with Yep Roc Records and gone into the studio with producer Peter Katis, known for his work with atmospheric rock bands like Interpol and the National. With Katis adding a darker element to the band’s sound, Jukebox the Ghost released their second album, Everything Under the Sun, in September. That same year, the group celebrated a milestone with an appearance on the David Letterman Show, followed by tours with Barenaked Ladies and Jack's Mannequin, before heading back into the studio to record their third full-length, 2012's Safe Travels. In May 2014 the band issued the single "The Great Unknown," which was followed by the release of their self-titled record in October, recorded with and produced by Dan Romer (A Great Big World, Ingrid Michaelson).
On the heels of their new release, the trio embarked on a headlining national tour in January with Chris Carrabba’s Twin Forks and NYC’s Secret Someones. We caught up with the band over some beers at the Metro, where they took the stage for Chicago’s Tomorrow Never Knows (TNK) Fest. Check out our interview below, and don’t miss the band’s performance on Conan tonight at 11/10 CST.
The Show: Jukebox the Ghost with Twin Forks and Secret Someones for Tomorrow Never Knows Fest // Metro // Jan. 17, 2015
Drinks of Choice: Ben Thornewill; pianos, vocals (coffee/ gin and tonic); Tommy Siegel; guitar, vocals (English-style cider); Jesse Kristin, drums (Anchor Steam beer)
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: You guys are originally from Washington, D.C.
Tommy from Jukebox the Ghost: Yeah, we started as a band in D.C. because we were in college, but none of us are actually from there.
Kristen: Where are you all from?
Tommy: I'm from Richmond, Virginia; Ben is from Louisville, Kentucky; and Jesse is from Boston, Massachusetts. We all met in college, and because the band was born there that's sort of our hometown, so to speak. Nowadays we all live in Brooklyn. Jesse and I live in Williamsburg, and Ben lives in South Slope.
Kristen: I think if I moved out to New York City Brooklyn would be the place for me. I lived there for three months in college, but I lived in Manhattan.
Tommy: It's funny, from my perspective, the people who live in Manhattan are generally older or work in finance.
Ben from Jukebox the Ghost: Although there's a big change happening on the Upper West Side.
Tommy: And the Upper East Side. It’s getting cheaper than Williamsburg.
Kristen: There has been a lot of talk about Brooklyn becoming really trendy. Do you ever feel as though your neighborhood is getting invaded?
Tommy: Well, it’s our fault.
Jesse from Jukebox the Ghost: Yeah, they’re not really invading …
Tommy: I kind of get annoyed when first-generation gentrifiers get annoyed at second-generation gentrifiers. It's all of our fault. I can't really be like, “I remember the good ‘ole days when we invaded the neighborhood for the first time.”
Ben: Williamsburg neighborhood now has an Urban Outfitters and Starbucks instead of local stores and coffee shops. That's a change, but even that's the last like two years. It's jumped the shark.
Kristen: I know people are feeling that way about Nashville, too. A lot of bands I interview call Nashville home, and they've started to express that same sentiment. I think it's actually in a lot of places — Austin, too. But it’s going to happen.
Ben: Yeah, people go to cities and make them nice.
Kristen: Tell me about your “Van Doodles” project.
Tommy: Van Doodles is a compilation book of something I've been doing for years, which is taking drawing requests from our fans on Twitter on long drives. When I was a kid, until I was 14 or so, I thought that being a cartoonist or an animator was my path in life. Then I went through puberty and got distracted by guitars and that stuff, but more recently I've been like, “Oh, I can draw.” Taking requests from fans is a fun thing to do when I'm bored on a long drive. It spiraled out of control in the last two-and-a-half or three years. I made a compilation book of some of the better ones. People will be like “Draw a turtle going through a midlife crisis,” or “Draw Jukebox the Ghost as Alvin and the Chipmunks, or whatever, and I try my best.
Kristen: Do you only draw in the van?
Tommy: I only draw in the van.
Kristen: How do you not get carsick?
Tommy: Sometimes I do. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for art.
Kristen:What's the weirdest doodle request that you've had?
Tommy: Somebody wanted Jukebox the Ghost as Beyonce's backup dancers, and I obliged, but it's a disturbing one.
Ben: It's one of the best. I was flattered by how large you drew my hips because that’s not how they are in real life.
Kristen:That was super considerate of you, Tommy. Let's talk music. I read that for your recent self-titled album, you started with 50 demos. First off, how long did it take you to come up with 50 demos? And how the hell did you narrow them down to the 11 tracks now on the album?
Ben: About two summers ago we started demoing and looking at songs, and eventually made a pile of them. Then, we worked through the fall demoing them and putting them together. Our idea was to see what we were working with, and to see how — out of this massive pool of songs — we could make a record that made sense. You can only add so many upbeat songs in this key, and you can only have so many ballads — and so on and so forth. So, there was a natural selection process that happened.
Tommy: And there was a deliberate vibe selection, too, with this record. In the past we'd kind of pick and choose so there would be some ballads, some crazy “froggy” songs and some pop songs, and then we’d figure out how to make them all work together. This time, we looked at the batch and we thought about making a great pop record from front to back, where every song was a pop song in a more traditional way.
Kristen:Was there a track that was particularly challenging, or a track that didn't turn out the way you expected?
Ben: A number of the songs had major changes. The song "Girl" is a good example. Originally, it was a sort of Billy Joel-esque piano-pop ballad song. Our producer, Dan Romer, just completely changed it. We all worked on it and turned it into an arrangement with a more hip-hop feel. It couldn't be more different than its original incarnation. A lot of the songs went through that little transformation, but the original was piano-heavy and guitar-heavy, and it ended up being all piano. A lot of the record was us taking risks like that in both arrangement and song choices.
Kristen: Did you work with him previously?
Ben: Yeah, he did our last record as well.
Kristen:Did you ever consider working with another producer, or has Dan always been your go-to?
Ben: We actually worked on about half the songs with another producer as well — Andrew Dawson — who is on the west coast. But Dan is a long-term friend of ours, and he's incredibly talented so we just wanted to work with him again.
Tommy: We trust his ear. I think it takes a lot of trust in an outside of creative partner to let them overrule our own band instincts. He's at that point where we trust his ear so much that we're willing to let him go down whatever road he wants to go down, and just see what happens. It's not an easy thing to do, and letting go of those tight reins is only something we really did for the first time on this record, and it's pretty much due to our trust in Dan's ear.
Kristen: It's got to be so hard, especially with something you've been working on for a while and feels right. I think, especially with creative endeavors, it's a little closer to you.
Ben: Yeah, you get an idea in your head of how a song is supposed to sound or supposed to feel, and if it starts pushing away from that, you get this a weird panic on the inside: “No, no, no, that's not right, that's not how the song is supposed to be.” Sometimes that instinct is correct, but often it's hard to not be narrow-minded when you’re involved in your own song.
Tommy: The thing that helps especially with Dan, too, is he's just a phenomenal songwriter... Not a lot of producers and engineers are like that. You can take all the technical things he's great at, and on top of it, he just writes killer songs. Even if we worked with great producers in the past, we don’t necessarily have a body of work to point to with stuff they’ve written. But Dan is a songwriting machine, and obviously very musical. He’s really the only producer I've seen able to go head-to-head with Ben, talking about theory and inversions and how melodies are being structured. That's really helpful.
Kristen: Did you study music in college?
Ben: Yeah, I was a music major. Tommy was a music minor. I was a classical-piano kid, all the way growing up; a real serious study.
Kristen: What about you? Any music major or minor?
Jesse: No. I actually studied biology. I'm not applying the field, currently. But you know, whenever there are days where I feel like all I have is being a drummer, I can look back on the days when I aced organic chemistry exams and feel a little better. I was pretty good at it. I brag because it's so weird to be a drummer in a rock band and be like if someone wants to talk orgo I will get nerdy; I will dork out.
Tommy: You're arguably better at organic chemistry than drumming.
Ben: He's also really good at drumming so ...
Jesse: I'm probably smarter than I am musical, at the end of the day.
Kristen:Was your plan to go to med school?
Jesse: It was for a little. I flirted with the idea, and then realized it's not for my brain or my personality. The guys kind of talked me out of it actually.
Ben: I used to say in interviews we talked him out of med school, and then he told me I had to stop saying that.
Jesse: From now on, you know ...
Ben: You're back around? I can say it again?
Jesse: You can say it again.
Kristen:I'm glad you decided to come forward with that in this interview.
Ben: You could have made money, and had the respect of your peers.
Kristen: What is the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you've done in the past year?
Ben: The answer to that is easy.
Tommy: Yeah, it is easy.
Ben: We played at LaGuardia Airport for the holidays.
Tommy: We got hired by American Airlines to play at gate D3 in terminal B.
Ben: It was a really well-paying, high-paying gig. We set up at the gate and played two 20-minute sets for pretty much no one, and then I boarded my plane on American Airlines to go home for Christmas.
Tommy: I think it was American Airlines' way of being supporters of art. I think they were looking for that viral moment of, “Oh, look, my favorite band is playing in the airport.” Which didn’t happen.
Ben: Well, actually, one person.
Tommy: That's true.
Ben: One fan was there; he was an enormous fan and freaking out about it. But I think American Airlines just wanted to give something back to the people who fly with them, and spread some joy in the holiday season.
Kristen:Did they give you wings to wear?
Tommy: We didn't get the wings. It felt very Flight of the Conchords the whole time for us.
Kristen: Was this actually on Christmas?
Ben: It was about a week-and-a-half before, and the terminal was really empty. It was really un-rock-‘n’-roll. As un-rock-‘n’-roll as you can possibly get.
Jesse: Other than a kid's birthday party.
Kristen: Ifeel like it’s also kind of rock-‘n’-roll to have a whole airport to yourself.
Tommy: Keep in mind that Ben was playing a really small Casio keyboard for the set.
Ben: There were no plugs; there was only one microphone, and it couldn't reach either of us.
Tommy: So we were basically busking.
Ben: We were on the stage in front of the payphones, and the sound guy probably doubled as the custodian.
Kristen:Well, shout out to D3.
Kristen:What are your guys' bad habits on the road? You can speak on behalf of each other for this one.
Ben: Jesse's heroin is getting really tiresome.
Jesse: It's getting old.
Ben: We haven’t really talked about it yet, but…
Tommy: Speaking for myself, and I’m sure the guys feel like they’re in a similar boat, but when you’re on tour, it becomes really hard to combat phone addiction. You're in a van all day and it's so much easier to look at your phone than it is to like pick up a book, or actually concentrate.
Jesse: You used to read so much more.
Tommy: I used to read. I don't. I need to get back into that. To me, phone addiction was a terrible tour thing.
Kristen: What's the mobile app on your phone that you couldn't live without?
Ben: Flappy Bird.
Tommy: Flappy Bird was invented by this Vietnam developer, and it turned to the biggest game of the year. He made millions of dollars on it, and then he pulled the game down because he didn't like the fame. It was a huge phenomenon about six months ago.
Ben: It's like the J.D. Salinger of phone games.
Jesse: While we're talking about habits, it wouldn't be an honest Jukebox the Ghost interview if we didn't say that Ben and I have a Taco Bell habit.
Tommy: Notice I'm not part of this.
Jesse: Debatably good or bad, depending who you ask.
Ben: I think it's great.
Jesse: Taco Bell is one of the greatest food establishments in the country.
Kristen: Have you tried the breakfast?
Ben: No, I haven't. I compartmentalize. I love breakfast so much. I love breakfast more than Taco Bell. I'm not willing to let Taco Bell's sub-par breakfast — which I'm assuming it must be — infringe upon my joy.
Tommy: Don't you think they would apply the same high standards as they do for dinner to the breakfasts?
Jesse: It's like chocolate and vanilla. Don't mix it.
Tommy: So, you don't like Neapolitan?
Kristen: You’re here for Tomorrow Never Knows Fest, and you’re playing tonight with two other bands: Twin Forks and Secret Someones. How has the tour with them been so far?
Ben: This is day five or six, so only the first week of the tour, but everyone is so great. They're fantastic people, and their music is phenomenal. We’ll be on the road for two months. Twin Forks are with us for another two or three weeks, and when the tour continues on, another band will hop in.
Kristen: Aside from Taco Bell, what the hardest thing about being on the road?
Ben: I was going to say the days you can't have Taco Bell.
Jesse: Me too.
Tommy: For me, in all seriousness, the two worst things for me are the lack of sleep. Because if you don’t sleep, you get sick, and that’s a nightmare on the road. Secondly, I eat pretty healthy when I’m at home, and it's really difficult to eat healthy when you’re on the road. I end up eating four or five bananas a day. I always end up in a gas station, and I think to myself, “I could eat a whole bag of Chex Mix, or I could eat three bananas. I'm just going to eat three bananas.”
Kristen: Yeah, it’d be hard in the van when you're on your phone, not paying attention to what you're eating…
Tommy: Playing Flappy Bird and before you know it …[Laughs]
Jesse: I’ve started to realize after some days of doing this that the hardest thing is that you put so much time and energy into your music, and you honestly believe in it because you're touring…But it's inevitable that when we're in a different city every night — in a different room with a different mood — sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes it does. Having the power to overcome that can be difficult. When you have a night where you're just not feeling it, you might second-guess why you're on tour. But then the good shows make it so worth it. It's a toss up. Every show is different.
Tommy: We've actually been playing the exact same set list each night so far this week, and it has been striking how incredibly different the same set list can feel in a different room. We played the exact same set list on Tuesday night as we did last night. Last night was an amazing show, and then Tuesday we played a show, and we were all like ...
Jesse: We just felt like it sucked. Yeah, we felt like it was a really long night, the songs weren’t working and we needed to shake it up. Then, we played the same set list, different place, different night — and it was great, perfect. Killing it.
Kristen:Collectively, what has been your favorite show that you’ve played?
Tommy: We’ve had a lot of favorite shows at this point, since we’ve been playing for about seven years. But last time we were at the Metro was actually one of my favorite shows.
Jesse: And in our earlier days of touring, whenever we played Schubas there was something about the crowd and the vibe in that room that we always loved.
Tommy: We’ve had a lot of fun in Chicago.
Kristen: What's the best advice you've ever received?
Ben: I took a long camping trip with my uncle who said eat as much Taco Bell as you possibly can. I try to do that. [Laughs]
Jesse: Our tour manager of about two years ago, Charlotte, was on a tour previously where she was the photographer. The tour manager had a motto that was, “Nothing weird.” There's something about "nothing weird" that makes sense to me. We get really weird on the road.
Tommy: As a guy who was also on that tour, I have no idea what he's talking about.
Ben: I take the advice of the drummer of Spinal Tap: “Have a great time, all the time.”
Kristen: And nothing weird.
Ben: Nothing weird.
Kristen: What’s next for you guys? Are you working on any new stuff while you’re on the road?
Ben: Yeah, we're always working on new stuff.
Tommy: With our next record, I feel like it’s going to be an even more insane whittling-down process…Just from hearing what Ben has been writing, and what I’ve been writing. And Jesse's been writing a lot more. I wouldn't be surprised if we come into the next record with 75 demos.
Ben: Yeah, and there’s no way for us to say how that will impact our sound. There’s a lot we’ll discover as we make it and put it together, just as we did with this last record.