‘A Bigger Sonic Palette’ for a Weird Party: An Interview with Jukebox the Ghost

Jukebox the Ghost talk about their most collaborative album to date, how Rolling Stone begged to hang out in the studio with them, and their lack of knowledge about classic ghosts.
Jukebox the Ghost
Jukebox the Ghost
Yep Roc

It’s always exciting to hear that Jukebox the Ghost are releasing a new record because it means they will tour in support of the album. With great original pop songs and often some unique covers thrown in, their live shows become a happy party. They were one of the first bands I photographed for PopMatters and also one of the most recent shows I’ve caught (at an album release party during CMJ). October 21st saw the release of their fourth studio album, the self-titled Jukebox the Ghost on Yep Roc Records (read PopMatters‘ review here), the follow-up to 2012’s Safe Travels. The album happens to be their most collaborative album yet, with several outside co-writers for some songs. The collaborative nature of Jukebox the Ghost is reflected by its being recorded in Los Angeles with producers Dan Romer (Ingrid Michaelson, A Great Big World) and Andrew Dawson (Kanye West, fun.).

I had a chance to talk with the three members of the band, vocalist and pianist/organist Ben Thornewill, vocalist and guitarist Tommy Siegal and drummer (and now vocalist) Jesse Kristin, at a Brooklyn bar ahead of the album release to discuss the Brooklyn and pop influences that can be heard on their new album. That conversation, and the band’s tour dates, follow below.

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Your new self-titled album is your most pop-y album yet. How did you end up going in that direction?

Tommy Siegel: From our perspective, what’s funny about the record is that I think the average listener will hear it and think that it’s — I can see someone hearing it and perceiving it as almost like it’s a sellout record, like “Jukebox trying to make it big”, or something like that. But for us, it was this weird experience of taking all sorts of risks as a band that we had never taken before. Arrangement-wise, we had always kind of relied on the piano, drums, guitar lineup and this record kind of set up the idea, like “What if that’s not always the case? What if sometimes there was no guitar? What if sometimes there was no piano? What if sometimes there were no drums?” Progressively, it kind of opened up the idea that the band could be anything, and we just took each song by itself and just tried to make it as awesome as possible.

Ben Thornewill: A lot of it was that we came into the record with fifty-odd songs. Through process of our opinions and other people’s opinions, talking about crafting the record, shaping the record, we whittled it down to the eleven we have. From there, we completely deconstructed them, and we’re not married to the piano or the guitar, or anything. We weren’t married to anything. It was just “What is going to make this the best song possible?” In some instances, that was no piano or no guitar. We were open to those sorts of conversations for the first time. So, it ended up being a really, in its own way, an experimental record from us. The yield result was on the more pop-y side.

TS: [It’s] more the song selection more than anything else, because we came in with so many songs that we kind of decided to — our albums have generally had ups and downs and have gone all over the place stylistically. This one, not that it doesn’t go all over the place stylistically, but we wanted it to be a record that you could put on a party. Maybe a little bit of a weird party, but a party.

I’ve heard the whole record. There are more tracks where you guys are doing vocals on the same song, and it seems more collaborative as a whole.

BT: Arranging, and even songwriting, was a much more collaborative record than we’ve ever done. There was a song that is very co-written between me and Tommy, ‘You do this line, I’ll do this line. Why don’t we take this part from this song, or this part from this song?’. That was something we had done in little bits but never went full-on for before. This time we went for it. And I think it’s one of the best songs on the record, is the song that we ended up writing and sharing vocally.

You have a co-writer on the “The Great Unknown”. Is this the first album you’ve done with outside writers?

BT: Yeah, it is. What’s funny about that is the guy that wrote it, a guy named Greg Holden, and he’s one of my best friends. When he’s in town, we hang out a couple of times a week. He’s just one of those dudes that I called. He’s an amazing songwriter in his own right and we were just like “Hey, let’s get together and write a song and we’ll see what happens.” He wrote the song and we weren’t writing for Jukebox or writing for anything else, we were just writing this song. Then it sort of became apparent that “Oh, we should put this on the Jukebox record.” and then there it was. It even feels sellout-y to me when someone says ‘Oh, I need help writing a song for this record’. [This] was never that, though. It was “I wrote this song with a friend, this makes sense, let’s put it on the record.” There was plenty of material that we could have put on the record that wasn’t written with anybody else, but at the end of the day it was just, “Let’s put the best songs possible on the record.”

Were there other songs that are co-written on the record?

BT: Uh huh. I wrote “When the Nights Get Long” with the producer, Dan Romer.

TS: They all have little bits of co-writes.

BT: “Long Way Home” has a little bit. Yeah, there’s lots of little pieces.

But there’s more on this album than before?

BT: Yeah, we’d never done that. Before this record, we’d never written with other people period. I started writing with other people about two years ago and I was very adamant, I was like “I’m not writing for me. This is not Jukebox stuff,” but we’d go and write songs. So I have tons of songs that are co-written that won’t be for Jukebox and hopefully will find a home somewhere else. But at the end of the day, we both found that writing with other people just opens up the imagination and the possibilities for writing. It makes you a lot more creative.

TS: Personally, I sort of always treated songwriting as almost a sacred, magical thing that just seemed to happen and you had no control over it. What co-writing helped me realize, with Ben or Jesse [Kristin], or with a ton of other people I’ve co-written with in the last year, has been realizing that it’s kind of just showing up. If you get into a room with someone else with the goal of writing a song, you’re going to write a song. How good that song is is kind of up to you. But I never realized that showing up and trying to make it happen was the majority of the battle with songwriting. I kind of thought it was solely something that happened as a force of cosmic magic or something.

BT: Sometimes it still is, and that’s great, but it doesn’t have to be.

TS: Yeah. Sometimes the best bits do just sort of happen and they feel like you didn’t even write it, and then it just sort of popped into your head from some kind of vacuous magical ether that pumps songs into your brain. But it doesn’t necessarily always have to be that way, and sometimes the magic comes just being in a room and trying to write a song.

Was the entire creative process done in California? You recorded the album there but did you craft the songs there?

BT: We did months preparation, spent times demoing — demo, demo, demoing, getting songs down, getting songs written. We did three solid months of prep work before we got to LA, and even then, still deconstructed songs and started the whole process over.

What reasons did you have for working in Los Angeles instead of New York?

TS: The producer we wanted to work with moved to L.A..

BT: Also, it was really nice not to be in New York during last winter’s horrible winter.

TS: What were people calling it?

Snowmageddon or something like that?

TS: I’m thinking of the other name.

Jesse Kristin: Polar Vortex.

TS: Polar Vortex

BT: Many polar vortexes, yes. There were a couple.

Jesse, I know that you had shard comments on the recording process in a Rolling Stone photo diary. Did RS stay with you for a day or two at the studio or how did that come about?

JK: We have a friend, Alex Pines, who’s a super-talented photographer, and she happens to be kind of tight with the Rolling Stone people, so we had the fortune of having her hang out with us, and that was it. She asked me to make some captions.

BT: Yeah, she just hung out for a couple of days and took amazing photos, and then…

TS: Rolling Stone said ‘Yes’.

BT: I like the way it sounds. You should have said, ‘Yes, Rolling Stone came and hung out with us for a couple of days’. It sounds way cooler. Just say that. “Rolling Stone came and hung out with us in the studio for a couple of days”.

JK: That’s what I meant.

TS: They begged.

That will make a good headline. So on, “The Long Way Home”, that’s where [Tommy and Ben] share vocals right?

BT: Yeah. In that one, the two of us wrote – I wrote a part of that with another guy randomly, too. There’s a couple writers in that one.

You have another gospel-y song on the new record, “Undeniable You” [following “The Spiritual” on the last record, Safe Travels]. What inspires you to go in that direction?

BT: “Undeniable You”, in its first version, wasn’t set up to have those vocals. We were trying to find a way to make it special and arrange it, and I had actually brought in a demo of an old song that had this crazy ten-part blown out vocal texture. We didn’t touch that song for almost the entire record-making process. It was the last, like, four days. Then I laid down the piano track and the lead vocal, and just got in the vocal booth and we just started — I don’t know, this is one of those meditative trance moments, did all those vocals in an hour and a half, two hours? Unplanned, unprompted, all improvised. I would just sing a note and then double it, triple it, next one, stack it up. If I didn’t like, we’d scratch it and I’d start over. I like that I can use my instrument as a voice in that way, and that’s not something you ever get to do except on a record and it’s not something, even in that scene, that I get to do very often. I don’t get to just show off that part or exercise that part of my musical brain. I think, for that song, it ended up working really well for that arrangement. It’s all about pushing the envelope of what I have done and can do vocally, and I wanted to try something new.

So, going back to the pop-y thing, I believe you guys are familiar with Savoir Adore [Author’s Note: the two groups have the same management]. Did that band or any other bands in the Brooklyn scene influence the sound of this record?

TS: I think you cannot help but be influenced by the world around you. I do hear those current Brooklyn danceable elements on our record. It’s almost funny for me to listen to our old records now because they sound… The influence is so confusing on our first couple of records, in kind of a good way. But you can tell that we were all coming from very different points of view. You can tell that Ben was putting a lot of classical licks into his piano playing, you can tell that I was really into this prog-y suites — which is not to say I’m not into them anymore. But I think we’ve all developed as listeners, and we’re more mature in terms of our influences as well. I think that has kind of helped us as three writers and players, find a lot of common ground.

BT: I don’t think we, as a band, are interested in the move towards more electronic music in what we’re doing. But I will say that I think it opened the door for different sonic ideas that we could slip in there. So it’s more sound-based versus piano or guitar part-based. It wasn’t a decision, like, “Oh, we can do this because X, Y, and Z bands in Brooklyn are doing that.”

TS: It’s almost more like using the current cultural palette as a backdrop to put our own songwriting on, and not the other way around, if that makes any sense.

JK: Yeah, this record kind of feels like something that twenty years from now, or thirty years from now, when we look back at 2014, we can say, ‘Oh, this is the Jukebox the Ghost record that happened in 2014.” It does have some sort of hip hop or R&B-inspired samples and sounds, and I think that’s cool, is that we’re a band that kind of always made our own sound but decided this year to incorporate a little bit of that inspiration that we got from other bands, which was like. “Oh, incorporate weird sounds in to your band. Incorporate weird drum samples.” Whether we stick with it or not, it’s something that I think, down the road, we can look back and say we were part of this fabric of music, if that makes sense.

Did you have to learn new instruments?

BT: No. We did a lot of synth work. I mean, the core is still there.

TS: I’ve had to become a better bassist, because there’s a lot more bass on this record. And sometimes bass is a lot more dominant than the guitar.

BT: Yeah. I’ve learned a lot in the last year and a half, two years in synth programming. In fact, I just, in the last week, week and a half, redid my entire synth setup. I went into my computer and reprogrammed all the synth sounds. I was just listening with my ear to the synth sounds on the record and recreating them on a synth so I can play them live. That was something I wouldn’t have even known close how to do two years ago.

JK: I think something we’ve learned from figuring out how to arrange this record live is that we’re not necessarily replacing things. So, we’ve always been a band that relies on an organic sound, that’s the three of us playing in a room, and then we bring that to an audience and it should sound like us playing in a room. Even though we’ve added some things that are programmed, like samples, like I have a drum pad, they’re not actually replacing anything. It’s just adding. It’s still the three of us playing in a room like we always have, and that’s really how the record sounds.

BT: It’s just a bigger sonic palette.

JK: Yeah, we’ve really just added some things on top. We’ve added some flare on top.

TS: What’s exciting to me too is in the past I used to think, “Oh man, this song could have been so cool, but we’re so limited in the instruments we’re playing. It has to sound good with piano, it has to sound good with guitar, it has to sound good with drums.” And now I think we’ve all kind of recognized that the lineup of what instruments we want to play doesn’t really matter, it’s just, “What instrument can we play that makes the song sound awesome?” That’s really exciting to me in the future.

Have you had a chance to play many of the songs live?

BT: Not in front of an audience. We’ve been sort of working our way up there. Like “The Great Unknown” we’ve been playing for a long time now. The last few weeks we’ve been in our practice space working up the entire record, so we’re getting there.

The music video you guys did for “The Great Unknown” has some epic aerial shots, can you tell me about the making of that?

JK: It’s obviously the best music video we’ve had. It was cool because basically the crew had GoPros attached to a drone and we drove up the Pacific coast highway. We started in L.A., and then we ended in San Francisco playing a rooftop show. We just got these really cool shots that sort of made it look like we had a helicopter or something.

Is there a favorite song that you have on the new record?

JK: Favorite songs are always funny because you have your early favorites, and those would probably be the singles. They’re the strongest pop songs and you love them. Then you get a little sick of them, only because you believe in them so much that you grow tired of them. Then you start turning your ear towards the ones that are kind of weird and more like album cuts. I like the song “Hollywood” because it’s a little weird. I think our fans, when they hear it, they’re probably going to like it a lot, just relative to the other songs being, “Oh, “Postcard”, that’s a great song.” But when they hear “Hollywood” — right guys?

TS: They’re going to be confused, but in a good way.

JK: They’re going to be confused. I almost feel like the phenomenon I’m referring to is when you get an album, you have your songs in the first week that you love. Then you have those songs that in the third week you love. And for some reason, those ones have a longer shelf life, and they’re not the singles but they stick with you. I feel like we have a few tracks like that on this record.

TS: God only knows how many times I’ve listened to this record in the process of making it. It’s one of those things where by the time you come out of making the record, mixing is almost such a mental chore in a way because you’ve already heard the song so many times. You don’t even know which way is up and which way is down. So I can say assuredly that after six months of really sitting on the record, I have four favorite songs that I keep coming back to, which are “Girl”, “Long Way Home”, “Hollywood” and “Made for Ending”. Those are the four that I just keep coming back to that I just love. Whatever mood I’m in, I love those four.

JK: I think “Girl” is a track that we could probably all three agree on because, for whatever reason, it’s not going to be promoted as a single. “Girl” represents something for our band that’s unprecedented. There’s just something about the arrangement and the tempo that is so relaxed.

BT: I forgot about “Girl” and “Hollywood” just now. I was like, “Oh, what are my favorite songs? Oh, those songs are great.” That’s the experience that I have, that there’s not a song on the record I don’t stand by 100%, and so I don’t know where I’m going to land on a given day.

Recalling another famous group of ghosts, Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde. Which one would you be?

JK: Who are they?

TS: I’m Pinky.

For the record, Tommy is Pinky.

BT: What are they called? Who are they?

Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde.

BT: Who are, why can’t I remember who they are either?

TS: Don’t even tell them. [Laughs]

JK: I’m going to be Blinky.

TS: I thought it was Sue. It’s Clyde? Clyde? Who’s Clyde?

Seth Kallen [band manager]: That might be the original Pac-Man. I always played Mrs. Pac-Man.

JK: Seth doesn’t know either.

TS: You guys don’t know? You guys don’t get out enough man.

BT: I’ve heard this before, and I know it, and it’s annoying me.

TS: You’ve seen them. You know exactly what they look like, because we are in danger of copyright infringement.

BT: Ghostbusters? [More laughs]

BT: Oh, Pac-Man.

So Clyde, I guess is the male version. Maybe there’s another female version.

TS: I think Jesse is a Clyde.

JK: Alright, I’ll take it.

SK: Yeah, I had no clue. What threw me off was Clyde.

I had to look it up. I kept thinking it was Dot for whatever reason.

TS: You were thinking of Yakko, Wakko and Dot.

BT: That’s what I was thinking of, Pinky and The Brain.

And you were, for the record, again?

BT: Icky. [laughs]