I hate emo, but I like the Juliana Theory. How to explain this apparent paradox? Well, you’d know if you’d been paying attention past their most recent full-length, Emotion Is Dead. Since then, The Juliana Theory has been busy reconfiguring their sound—opting for a misanthropic lyric sheet and a more aggressive tack. Emo it’s definitely not. The new songs might not be the kind its fan base would’ve wished for, but nonetheless, The Juliana has boldly embraced change. Their forthcoming album and first for Epic Records, Love, purportedly pushes the envelope even further yet still retains an iron grip on melody.
The two songs that I’ve already heard are a revelation for a band that once seemed all too willing to bow to genre conventions. The first single, “Do You Believe Me?” is a furious blast of vitriol smoothed with an ingenious pop hook—imagine Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs backed by Bon Jovi and you’re getting close. “Bring It Low” is no less astonishing in its ability to communicate both joy and fury simultaneously. The two songs alone should be enough to obliterate their tag as an emo band and catapult them to the top of the modern rock charts. But the group is no great hurry at the moment. Singer and lead guitarist/pianist Brett Detar recently sat down with PopMatters for a lengthy chat about the band’s evolution and their impending success.
PopMatters: This is an exciting time for the The Juliana Theory. You’re about to have your new album come out on Epic Records, your first for the label, and the new single, “Do You Believe Me?” should be hitting the radio some time soon. Had signing to a major label and being able to hear the band’s songs on the radio always been a goal or did it just kind of happen that way?
Early on, we didn’t have any goals in mind because we started out as a sort of joke side project. We had no goals other than playing one or two local shows and maybe recording a demo tape with three songs. That was originally what we wanted to do. Then, as people started to like the band and we started to enjoy playing together, we just decided to tour and make a record. After a some time, we thought, “It would be pretty cool to sign to a major label.” But it took a while for [the idea] to even occur to us.
PopMatters: So you didn’t really view Tooth & Nail (the band’s former label) as a stepping-stone to a major.
When we first signed, we were just so excited that someone was going to pay for us to record that that’s probably all we thought about. Maybe a year later we were looking at it, hopefully, as a stepping-stone.
PopMatters: Emo bands are experiencing huge commercial success right now, but you’ve been writing songs in that style for a long time. Now, all of a sudden, it’s gone mainstream and I’m just wondering what you thought the effects of that commercialization are on the genre. What your reaction to it? Is it something you’d like to be a part of?
To be honest, we’ve never worried about tags or genres of music. I know we’ve been lumped into that [emo] category early on and I think it was because of who we played with and I guess partially what we played and the kids who came to see us. It seems now like that whole loose-knit movement is being embraced by mainstream media and more people are listening to it. I’m not sure whether that’s because Weezer is taking a lot of these bands out on tour or if it’s because of the videos on MTV. I don’t know. It’s that cycle—
PopMatters: Does commercialization concern you at all?
It doesn’t concern me because I believe that the music we write doesn’t totally fit with that scene or any scene. We try hard to write music that’s going to be good rock music. We really hope that no matter what scene we would be lumped into or what we would be called that our music could always be enjoyed by somebody out there who doesn’t care about all those tags. I mean, I suppose you could still call Pearl Jam grunge, but it seems sort of silly. We understand the need for those labels. We just don’t think they tell the whole story.
PopMatters: I actually don’t consider myself an emo fan. In fact, I can’t think of another band that might be considered emo that I like.
PopMatters: But the group has definitely evolved, you’re right. It doesn’t make any more sense to call The Juliana Theory emo than it does to call Pearl Jam grunge because your sound has changed a lot. I haven’t heard your first record, but the second, Emotion Is Dead, is a pretty straight-laced emo album in my mind. However, your most recent release, the Music from Another Room EP, really shows the band branching out. I hear new wave on “Liability” and post-punk on “Breathing by Wires.” I guess I was wondering what prompted you change your direction. Did you tire of your old sound?
I think we let the music dictate what we’re doing. It’s rare that we say, “We need to write a song that goes like this.” We just start playing and whatever comes out, comes out. If we like it, we do it. Usually, there is an underlying goal, but it’s not spelled out. Each time we go in to record we try to have what we’re doing be a step ahead of what we were doing before—musically and lyrically. We want to do things we haven’t done in the past. With each release we’ve tried to do that without having it turn into something ridiculous. We don’t want to alienate our fans, but, at the same, we have to grow.
PopMatters: I have to say that the note from you that appears in the CD booklet to the Music From Another Room EP is one of the strangest things I’ve ever read. To me, it reads almost like an apology to the fans in case the EP wasn’t they were expecting or hoping for. Were you very worried at the time that the group’s fans weren’t going to take to the band’s new direction?
We were caught in an odd position when we put out that EP. Our contract with Tooth & Nail was ending at the time and they were trying to milk any release they had [from us] for everything it was worth. They were putting stickers out and stuff on their web site that said Music From Another Room was the new record from the Juliana Theory. And that certainly was not the case. It wasn’t written that way. I wrote that note because we felt that the label was misleading people to believe that this was the record we had been working on, and we just wanted to make sure everyone knew that this was just an EP.
PopMatters: You stressed in the liner notes to the EP that you were in transition as a band. Did you view that release as a way to prepare people for the next full-length?
Well, I don’t think we’ll ever be done with our transition. We’re always attempting to grow. On Emotion is Dead we tried to follow a pretty strong pop formula—three and a half- or four-minute songs and A-B-A-B-C-A-B or whatever. With the EP, a lot of the songs were longer and not as blatantly catchy in a bubblegum type of way.
PopMatters: I think they rock harder.
I agree and the new record definitely rocks harder. Definitely the elements of bubblegum that were in Emotion Is Dead don’t exist anymore.
PopMatters: I have to admit that I’ve only heard two songs from the new album: “Do You Believe Me?” and “Bring It Low,” but those two songs alone are more forceful than anything else in your catalogue so far. Would you say they’re a good representation of what the album sounds like?
They definitely represent a part of the sound. There are six songs that are pretty aggressive, but then there are songs like “White Days,” which is one of the most beautiful songs we’ve ever written. It’s just really mellow the whole way through. And there are a couple of piano-based songs that have a different feel for us.
PopMatters: I was going to say, if the whole album was similar in tone to the first two songs, that album title must be a joke. I mean, there’s a lot of bitterness and hurt in those two songs.
Yeah, I was pretty upset the day I wrote “Do You Believe Me?” I wouldn’t say the whole record is angry, but there are definitely moments.
PopMatters: I was hoping you could talk a bit about the making of the album. Where did you record it?
We did the basic tracks at this amazing place called The Site. You drive way, way past the city and up through these hills and redwoods and The Site is right on top of the mountain. Everywhere you look is just trees. The only thing nearby is George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.
PopMatters: Sounds pretty anti-rock n’ roll.
Well, I think that’s what we were going for. When I went to check out the studios, Neil Young was recording there and that’s exactly where you’d expect him to be. We don’t like distractions. It’s not like we’re doing lines off the control board or anything like that. (laughs) So I think it was a perfect fit. We all live in wooded areas, so it felt very comfortable and familiar. It was pretty far from everything, but, at the same time, it was cool being secluded and completely focusing on the album.
PopMatters: I know you also spent some time in Miami mixing the album with Tom Lord-Alge. What was that like?
Nobody else from the band came down, but I was there for the whole time.
PopMatters: How did it feel to hand your songs over to a guy like that. I mean, Tom Lord-Alge is a very respected man in the industry with a tremendous reputation.
I’m really used to being opinionated during our mixes because the guy we recorded all our other stuff with, Barry Pointer, I could say whatever I wanted. But going in with Tom, I knew in advance that he had a proven track record and it’s 50 million times better than my proven track record, so I mostly let him do his thing. If I did feel strongly about something, I told him and he was cool about that and would do it. But fortunately, that didn’t happen very often. He makes stuff sound so good that it’s hard to deny him. There were things I had to stand my ground on, but there were other things he strongly recommended trying that, once he explained them to me, made a lot of sense. It’s funny because I just put the CD on the other day, after not having heard it in a while. I was flipping through the songs and I could really appreciate the mixes. At the time, they sounded similar to me. But now, going back, I can hear a lot of subtle nuances to the mixes.
PopMatters: I guess that’s the benefit of working with someone you haven’t worked with before.
True. He doesn’t know a thing about our past and he doesn’t care. He just wanted to make it sound good for what it was and I think he did a great job.
PopMatters: Have you set a release date yet?
Yep. October 22.