Jukebox The Ghost Tells Us Why It's OK Being An Insanely Dorky Pop Band.
For over a decade now, the D.C.-sprung power pop trio Jukebox the Ghost has been crafting harmony-rich, Ben Folds-ian pop ballads. While it may seem overkill to use the word “pop” twice in one sentence as we just did, it's only because pianist/lead vocalist Ben Thornewill and his bandmates are so adamant about using the term to describe their output.
To hear Thornewill tell it, that's because the band doesn't think of “pop” as a dirty word. And he and his bandmates certainly don't think that term demeans what they do. Quite the opposite, really. In a recent phone call, Thornewill told us that writing a good pop song was perhaps the hardest thing a band can do.
Fortunately, it's something Jukebox the Ghost is pretty good at, as evidenced by the band's new, hook-filled and self-titled fourth LP, which was released back in October.
And ahead of Jukebox the Ghost's show tomorrow night at Trees, we asked Thornewill about what goes into crafting the perfect pop song, why he loves Waffle House jukeboxes and what he thinks about the army of overly intellectual youths that seem to dominate the crowds at every one of his band's shows.
So I actually wanted to start out with a story: Yesterday, I was sitting in my car waiting for my sister, and I was kind of angry with her. When she got in the car, I was trying to keep a serious face because I was pissed off at her. But your music was playing and, to be honest, I got kind of annoyed at it because it was so happy and so upbeat. I was trying to be mad at her and I just couldn't stay mad!
I love that! I think that's great.
I'm glad you're glad! And it leads me into my first question: Do you intentionally make your music uplifting and happy?
It's not like, when I sit down to write a song, I think I'm going to write a song and expect that. But it's more the nature of what we do. It's funny, there are sad songs [of ours] you should've put on during that fight — it would not have helped — but, y'know, we want to make music that people enjoy, and that can be a positive and uplifting thing. It's not like the agenda. It's not why we do it, but it's a nice perk at the end of the day. And, y'know, every song you put on, you have to tour with it, and then you have to play it the next two, four or 10 years — whatever it is. We want to be playing music that makes us and makes people feel good.
So do you think that you and the rest of the band are generally happy people?
Yeah! I think, in the grand scheme of things, [we're] optimistic, happy. I think that can be read as shallow or as non-reflective, but we're people that sort of deal with hardship head-on, and then try to live out life in a positive way. It's never really appealed to me to make music that's downtrodden and sad and then play that every night. For me, that would be exhausting, and I wouldn't really see the point. So I think on the whole, we're positive, happy people. Not to say we don't have our demons, but…
Is that something you have to think about when trying to figure out where songs like “Dead” and other slower ones fit on a set list any given night?
Yeah. That's part of building a show. You have to put in some because you need those moments of somberness, or quiet, or whatever it is. You want the highs to be high and the lows to be low. So, it's not as if we're without our darknesses. We're doing couple slow songs on this tour and they end up being big, emotional moments. The reason we're not doing a whole set of songs that are sad is because I don't think people would want to come to that. But we also have those sort of songs in the set, and on the album.
You guys are pretty adamant about identifying yourselves as a pop band, too. How do you define pop music — and do you think pop music, in general, is a happy genre?
I think pop music is generally music you can dance to or sing a melody to. It defaults to being happy music. People want to hear a song that they can be in their car and blast and sing along to. Road trip music is sort of what it boils down to. But, for me, with pop music, it's that level of acceptability. There's this weird balance when you're writing music where you want a song to both be able to be a universal and yet subversive, strange or different enough that it stands out. For me, that's what really good pop writing is. It's writing something that could be universally liked and understood and yet not dripping in clichés and the same hooks. I think [writing] a pop song is one of the absolutely hardest things to do.
So why do it?
Well, because it's what I like. And it's a challenge. You want to be challenged. You want to keep trying to write better songs and be a better performer and be a better recording artist. Complacency is danger.
In your promotion efforts for this new record, you've talked about how it's so different than the past three records. Do you think that changes your identity as a band?
I feel like it's honestly focused us. I think with every record there's change, there's a natural evolution, y'know? Time has passed and [we're] different people [with] different experiences, and that's going to represented and manifested in the album. But we're the same guys, the same voices. We took some creative liberties and some creative risks, so there is a difference. But at the end of the day, I think we stayed by our sound, and we 100 percent stand by what we do. And I think this is the best record we've made.
Why would you say this album brought on so much more artistic freedom?
I think a lot of it is just getting older and being able to shed the petty ego stuff and your band issues that have plagued us in the past. We got on the goal of trying to make a big pop record — a record that is creatively fulfilling and takes risks because we got the chance to make something big. I think that united focus made a huge difference. And we also made the record in L.A., and we spent months on it. We had time, and we weren't feeling rushed and pressured. It was a really positive music making experience.
What would you say are the biggest differences from the first album to this current one? Do you consider yourselves a much better band than you were back then?
One hundred percent. It took a long time to be able to get to a point where one of us could bring in a song and we'd be able to say to one another, without feelings getting hurt, “This part's great, but this part isn't. It's not working for me for these reasons,” and so on. I think when songwriters are starting out, and bands are starting out, every song is the most precious thing on earth, and criticism is so hard to take. Some people you never get past that, and sometimes you can't. I think we've gotten to a point, we've known each other for upwards of ten years, and we've been touring together for much of it, so we know there's no malice, there's no anything. We're all trying to make the best songs possible. I think that's a major change. When we made the first record we were all 21. It's eight years later now and it feels like a lifetime.
Do you think your recent move to New York City impacted your relationship and your music in any way? Or could it have affected your sound at all, or inspired you?
That's a good question. I think I'm happier in New York. I love it. I love living around people who are working their asses off. There's no room for complacency in New York City. Most artists, musicians, whatever don't move there casually, unless they have just tons of money around. So that's been inspiring to be around people who are writing all the time, and working all the time, and recording all the time. I'm sure that contributed. And just being around talented people is inspiring. That's something that New York gives.
I spent some time in New York and I definitely felt like I was experiencing this creative hub where artists are constantly trying to improve their craft, and are constantly busy. Was that kind of the purpose of your move? Has the move has helped your band?
I do think it has helped. It was a never a “We need to move there for the band!” thing. It was always personal. We wanted to live there for personal reasons. It was just such an exciting city to be a part of, and we had so many friends there. I do think we've expanded creatively. I think meeting people and expanding the network of bands, producers, engineers, writers and even people outside of the music industry like theater people — the more creative people you meet, regardless of what medium they're working in, I think the more it helps and inspires. If we were living in, like, Toledo, and there's was just one local band, we wouldn't feel hugely inspired and feel like we have to do our absolute best to be worthy of living there. I feel that in New York.
So why go to L.A. to record your album, then?
That was because the producers we wanted to work with were living out there. But L.A. is another town that's like that. I think the quality of living is higher, so there's not the same desperate need to get out of your apartment and do something. But it's made upward by the beautiful weather and the great food. We found it hugely inspiring and creative.
So this is going to sort of sound like a cheesy question…
I love cheesy questions.
Seeing as your name has the word “jukebox” in it, and jukeboxes have historically been fairly associated with pop music, what has been your last experience with a jukebox?
I love the Waffle House jukeboxes where all the songs are about breakfast. I don't know if you've been to one, but when I walk into Waffle House I feel like I've come home. People that work there are the salt of the earth. Best food in the world. And they've got jukeboxes filled with songs about breakfast, and I can't imagine more than that.
Would it be embarrassing if I admitted to never having been to a Waffle House? Do they have the jukeboxes at the table? Or is it the one jukebox in the restaurant?
It's usually the one, big jukebox in the corner. We never trusted the one's that are at the table. I didn't understand that. Also, all the other members of the band [are here] right now and they're just shaking their heads at me because of my Waffle House answer.
I want to talk a little bit about your fan base — just kind of touching on the extremely specific demographic, where it tends to be these intellectual kids. Why do you think that is?
I have no idea! I don't know how, in Seattle and Minneapolis and Boston — and even in Portland, Maine — the same mold of person shows up to the show. I don't know what it is about our music that makes that unifying thing. Maybe it's a reflection of who we are, or maybe it must be a reflection of the music we're making. They're all people I like talking with and we all do. We have no idea how it happens. You can see somebody and be like, “OK, that is totally going to be a Jukebox fan.” And I like that. There's a community and the people we follow are often friends with each other and meet people at shows and travel to shows. It's strange. I don't know how that happens, but it does, and I like that. They're good people.
I was trying to place the people who introduced me to your music originally and the girl who first showed me your music is definitely an intellectual. She's quirky, too. Even a little dorky. It is interesting that you can recognize that as a band.
Well, it's so funny, because I think that's a lot of who we are. At the core, at high school and in college, we were the dorky, nerdy, trying to be intellectual, engaged in the world, positive people. For all of our trying to be a cool band — which we try — we still end up being the insanely dorky band that's making pop music. We're okay with that. I think people read or perceive that the irony implicit in our big pop songs, that when we're going full-on, it's always a little tongue and cheek. Somehow that resonates. That's great, because that means we're connecting with the people that we should be connecting with.
It makes sense. I've been listening, and when “Dead” came on last night, I just sat there and stopped what I was doing, because it forces you to think about what the lyrics are saying. So that's where it makes sense where the fan base is made up of those types of people, because, as much as it is pop music, which generically could be perceived as cheesy or having insignificant lyrics, your music is different. It's unique in the way that the lyrics do have that strong hook, but they also force the listeners to think about what's being ingrained into their heads.
Y'know, one of the big things that we try to do is make pop music that has substance, or that has twist. It shouldn't be all bubbles. Pop doesn't need to be a dirty word — like, “Wow, that's such a stupid song!” — but I guess that's a pattern. You should be able to have both. I think all the best pop songs have those. They have an element of big emotional something or puns or plays on words, or some subversive meaning, and yet still are catchy. I'm glad and hope that people who are listening perceive that we're doing something more than just silly pop music.
So what are some of your favorite examples of pop songs that have those deeper meanings?
That's a really good question. I don't know why, but my brain is drawn to Beyoncé's “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it).” There's something about it that's so fucking perfect. And yet — and she's her own brand of something — it's a little silly. It's a little self-aware, and yet it's so exactly what it is. I don't know. I don't know how to write a pop song. I don't know how to write that perfect song. There's no formula. There's so much just chance of getting the write ballads. And that's sort of the beauty of it. Keep trying and every time you write a better one.
So with that writing process, do you tend to veer more towards sitting down and designating time to come up with something, or do the ideas for songs occur more serendipitously?
For me, it's just me sitting at a piano and improvising and playing. Then something will start the creative process. It'll be the journey of the chord progressions or a lyrical idea or a melodic concept. In normal day to day life it ends up being what I try to do. I sometimes fail and I sometimes win, but it's just paying attention to the world around me and writing down ideas or concepts that could later be integrated into a song. You never know. Sometimes you have to force inspiration and sometimes it's just there. I wish I had a way to be like, “Yeah, I know how to write a song. This will be a song. Done.”
Why did you choose a self-titled album for your fourth album?
It kind of goes back to what we were talking about earlier, and how we went into the record and tore the songs apart. The way we made this record was way more self-aware and ended up feeling like we were done. We were not so much reinvented but focused what we were doing into something a little more cohesive. It felt like reasserted and redefining who we are. We felt the whole record was more of an announcement of, “Hey, this is something that we're doing, we're really proud of it.” We wanted to have there be a distinction between this record and the others.
If people haven't been fans of your band for a long time, would you prefer they start with this record and work their way backwards? Is the new record a better summary of who the band is?
I think you always think that the last thing you've made is the best thing you've made. I've felt that way about every other record. My hope is that the fan base moves with us and evolves with us and understands that making the same record twice is copping out. And that we're going to take risks, and hopefully the core uniting the genetic material of the band will be present throughout just to keep them interested. I'm sure when we make the next record we'll think, “Wow, this is the best record we've ever made.” That's a given.
Jukebox the Ghost performs at Trees on Thursday, February 5.