At least that's how it seemed until now. Enter Jukebox the Ghost, the explosive young power pop trio out of Brooklyn, and quite possibly the most optimistic indie band on the planet. While the subject matter of the band's third LP, "Safe Travels," is as grave as any -- delving into death, breakups and moving -- the album's tone remains remarkably upbeat, even playful. Here is a band that has legitimate reasons to complain, and all they want to do is make cool, fun music. Go figure.
In anticipation of Jukebox the Ghost's upcoming show at LouFest out in Forest Park on September 7, I caught up with singer and pianist Ben Thornewill to discuss everything from the progress of their upcoming fourth LP, to the strains of being on the road for months on end. If there was ever any doubt about the sincerity of the band's positive attitude, it is relieved within moments of our conversation. Thornewill speaks with all of the pep and candor that has defined the band's tone these past few years. "We are a positive band," Thornewill tells me, "We want to make people feel happy."
Derek Schwartz: So are you taking some time off showing until LouFest in St. Louis or are you playing shows around New York?
Ben Thornewill: LouFest is our next show actually, believe it or not. We've had a relatively clam summer, a couple of shows a month. Weve sort of been writing and starting the early process of the new record so we haven't been quite the road warriors that we usually are.
And how is the new record coming along? Do you know who you are going to work with as a producer yet?
None of that is in the works yet, we are still in the super early stages, writing the songs and trying to figure out when and where we're going to do it, so I don't have any secrets to give out yet.
From what I understand Jukebox the Ghost tends to tour pretty excessively. Can you talk a little about what that is like?
It is so funny, I almost feel like that happened to us on accident. We never set out to be that kind of band, but it has been the primary way that we have found success and found fans and maintained fans. The reason we spend the time touring is because it works for us. Every time we come through a city a few more people come, and we'll do a support tour and a headline tour and back and forth, and we love doing it. We're not one of those bands that has had a big radio hit, and as far as press is concerned, were not the buzziest band in the world. So we have had to work through touring to build and garner the fan base that we have now.
Is that ever draining on you as a band?
Absolutely, but not as a band. I feel like the band itself gets stronger through touring, and our relationships with each other get stronger on tour. Individually it can be mentally and physically exhausting in a unique way. As far as the band is concerned, we love doing it, and playing shows is such a wonderful thing and one of the greatest things about being in a band and getting to do what we do.
Do you ever get sick of your own songs playing them day in and day out like that?
(Laughs) Sometimes, if you start thinking about it too hard you start to lose your mind. We'll all go through a phase when we'll think about a song and be like, what on earth are we doing? Why does that song exist? And then it passes and it's fine and we have a great show with it and whatever. This may sound cliché but every audience is different, every show is different. If we were playing to the same crowd every night it would be the most tedious thing in the world, but because we get to play to different people and get different reaction, that keeps it fresh.
When you do get to that point where you are thinking, "What were we thinking with this song?" Do you ever make little adjustments or improvements on it?
Partially, it happens on occasion. For the most part we can't change the songs too much from what the record is doing because then the people going to shows won't understand what we're doing. Usually it's not like, "Oh that lyric, what was I thinking with that lyric?" It's more like, do you know the song "Schizophrenia?"
Every now and again, I think, this is the most spastic song of all time. Like, this is ridiculous, why are we doing this? The song is not going to change, and it's just a feeling that comes and it goes. It's a strong song and we do it and people like it and we like it, but that's an example of being like, do we really need to play all of these notes all of the time? But that's okay, that's the song that we wrote. On occasion, we'll take a song from a record and we'll add an introduction or extend a break or a middle section or something to try to keep it musically more surprising. But as far as the lyrical content and the general pop structure that doesn't really change.
Earlier you were talking about the importance of each unique crowd as you tour. Are there any shows that stand out to you as having a really great or a really awful crowd?
Yeah, absolutely. It's funny, in the past two weeks we have done two shows. One was on a circle line cruise that went around Manhattan, and it was in front of 500 fans, and everyone there just wanted to be there so bad and came from all over the country. It was beautiful. Then, a week later we just played, it was an amazing weekend, we played in upstate New York essentially at an adult summercamp, like a retreat for 24 to 30-something-year-olds from New York who all went up to go insane for a weekend in upstate New York. All they wanted to do was hear cover songs and listen to dance music. So we played our set and whatever, and played some covers to cater our set. That's an extreme, with wasted 20-somethings getting together like that and not really giving a crap about original songs, but we played a set that they liked.
I would love to take a step back and talk a bit about the collaborative EP that you just released with Jenny Own Young. Could you talk about what it was like to work with her?
Yeah, it is so funny, we recorded those songs four or five years ago. We did it in anticipation of our first, full, national tour which was with Jenny. We hadn't met her before doing those recordings, or maybe we had met her in passing. So we met up and spent a wonderful night recording and doing the songs and doing it live. Then we had this EP and we sold it on that tour, but never put it online or did any kind of release, we just had the physical copies. Then, we did this cruise that I just mentioned, and she was playing with us so we thought it was a good time to bring those recordings back. That's why they got re-released.
Are there any other musicians who you have thought about collaborating with?
That's a good question. It's not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. Whenever we go on tour with a band, that kind of conversation happens. Do we want to cover one of their songs or work on something together? For the most part though, except for on-stage collaborations and behind the scenes co-writing stuff, I find it is a very band individualistic culture. I think what we did with Jenny was sort of rare.
Now, regarding your last LP, "Safe Travels," I have read a lot about these tragedies in you your bandmates lives during that recording process, between your grandfather dying and Jesse's father passing. Can you talk about the effects that that had on the album, both in the recording process and in the finished product?
It was interesting, we were all going through these, what we now call "adult themes," things that everybody goes through like death and breakups and moves. It set a tone for us in the record-making process that was a little more somber. It is all under the umbrella of Jukebox the Ghost, and we're a pretty damn happy and optimistic band, but we felt that it was OK to put a little more serious material on the record. I think it effected song choices as well, as far as which songs we thought we should put on there and stay away from the way-silly stuff and stay on the sadder, more serious topics. I think another one of the changes, especially on Tommy's songwriting -- it was a lot more personal, a lot more "I" sort of language, narrativistic.
As you moved to this more serious record, were there any songs that you decided to leave out because they just didn't fit with the tone?
Yeah. We went in with 16 tunes and ended up with 12 and a bonus track. So of those other three, one of them is a bit bouncier, but it wasn't like the conversation was that this is too silly, it just didn't fit in with the way the album was shaping up. We recorded all 16 thinking that we knew we had a record from these songs, we just had to figure out which ones were going to work the best.
For me, even though there is definitely a serious tone to the lyrics, I would not describe "Safe Travels" as a somber album. In fact most of the time it feels pretty upbeat. Was this duality in the tone something that you intended?
Absolutely. First and foremost, I think that us as a band are not somber, downtrodden sorts of people, and we want to be able to put on a rock show and deal with serious issues, but not in a maudlin way. I think it's important to be able to deal with topics like this but be able to treat these life experiences not in such a way that you are totally devastated by them, which of course you can feel, but that type of feeling is not forever. And that's not the sort of band we are. We are a positive band and want to make people feel happy.
One of the songs that stood out to me was "Dead" because while the rest of the album deals with these very personal issues, that one focuses on a more general, philosophical subject. Can you talk about what inspired that and how it fits on the album?
It's interesting, that is actually one of Tommy's songs, the other songwriter in the band. I can talk about it, but only to an extent. One of the cool things about it was that we gave that song a lot more space on the record. It deals with sort of heavy topics and philosophical contemplations on death and if you're dead, do you know you're dead, and a lot of it was giving Tommy the vocal space to keep those lyrics super personal and keep it real and raw and build into a real anthemic ending. Unfortunately I can't talk too much about the songwriting because that's not mine.
Out of curiosity which songs were yours?
"Adulthood," "Spiritual," "Somebody," "Don't Let Me Fall Behind," "Devil's Angels," there are more.
Of those is there one that stands out as a particularly important song to you?
"Adulthood" is probably my favorite composition of mine on the record. The way it pulses the piano texture, I am really proud of, and the band arrangement came together really well. For me, I feel like Tommy's "Dead" is his contribution to meditation on death and mortality and growing up and adulthood.
Coming back to what we were talking about before, looking forward to this next record, one of the things that has made your career so much fun to watch unfold, for me anyhow, is that each of your records has a very different feel, each is very unique. Is there any direction that you see yourselves moving in the future?
Yeah. I mean, the cheat answer would be that I think we are just getting better. I think we are more conscious about the types of songs we are writing and where we want to be and what types of shows we want to put on. For me, "Somebody" on the new record was almost like the first song of the current batch of songs that I am working on, as in more songs in that realm but a little more reigned in and a little better. That's sort of where I feel like I am as a songwriter right now. But then again, it's such early days and we're going to be making this record in a different way then in the past, we're going to take some more time with it, work with different people. I don't really know how it is going to pan out but I feel really good about it. We have a batch of 40 or 50 songs already to choose from, so I think we're all feeling good.
You mentioned thinking about your live show as you are writing new material. Is thinking about how your songs are going to be performed on the road a really active part of your songwriting process?
It's funny, it is almost more passive. It is somewhere in the back of my mind, and Tommy's as well. That comes in more on which songs we choose and how we arrange them. We will have a conversation like, wouldn't it be nice to have another song like this, and then that is somewhere in the back of our minds and either we write that song or we don't. we're not really the type of band that has a conversation like, "We need a dance pop, shout along anthem, let's write that this week." That's just not what we do.
Have you ever had a song on an album that you struggled with adapting for a live show?
I think that that will be more of an issue on this record than on the last. Most of "Safe Travels" we arranged in a room together so we knew we could play them, but on some of the songs like "Hey Emily" we had to have a conversation about how we were going to do it. "Dead" was the same way. It really depends on how much production becomes a major part of the song, and there's only three of us on stage, so if you have 10 instruments on the record, we have to condense that.
I would love to take a giant leap backward and talk about your time at George Washington University when you guys formed under the name the Daily Mail. Could you talk about how you have progressed as a band since then and when you guys started to look at music as a career instead of a hobby?
When we were the Sunday Mail, that was just friends playing together in college. We had dreams of doing things, but we were a college band, we were okay. We were probably pretty awkward to watch and sloppy live, and we were pitchy when we were singing in our performances or whatever. Our senior year, we had all studied abroad and come back and wanted a fresh start, so we called ourselves Jukebox the Ghost, thinking that this was the last chance we were going to get to reinvent ourselves.
By the end of that year, something started happening and people started coming to our shows that were not just our friends and people that we had invited. That was a major change. As soon as that started happening, it kind of gave us hope and sort of every year we just kept going at it and thinking, "OK, its getting a little bit better, there are more people here." It was really towards the end of our senior year, we played a show in DC in front of 600 people, which at the time was unbelievable for us, we had never done anything even close to that before, and that gave us a springboard from which to go into the future.
Looking back on your career so far, is there one moment, whether that be a song an album, or even a conversation, that you would consider a real highlight of the band?
That's a good question. I think you have moments like that. I find that, the amount we tour and the amount we play, it is really easy to get lost in the wash of activity and be completely overwhelmed by the shows and you just go through it. Every now and again, an opportunity presents itself to pick your head up and appreciate it and look at it and be grateful for it. The big ones that come to mind: We played at Webster Hall in New York City and it was the night of the huge blizzard of this past year and for all intents and purposes the show should have been canceled, but it was not, and yet still I think 8 or 9 hundred people showed up in the blizzard. It was amazing. And then afterwards we went outside and had a snowball fight with the fans. It was just one of those moments where everyone was there because they really wanted to be, and it was the culmination of a lot of hard work. Every now and then, those moments happen. I think it is important to step back and think about what you are doing sometimes.
Jukebox the Ghost performs at LouFest on Saturday, September 7. KDHX is a media partner of LouFest 2013.