Jukebox The Ghost’s Ben Thornewill talks with Pollstar about the band’s new album, how the group has grown both musically and personally, and what it’s like to cruise with Barenaked Ladies.
Based in Brooklyn, the three-piece band features Thornewill on piano and vocals, guitarist/vocalist Tommy Siegel and drummer Jesse Kristin. When they first met 10 years ago while attending George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Thornewill was pursuing a major in music, Siegel’s major was journalism with a music minor and Kristin was majoring in biology.
They soon formed a band called The Sunday Mail, which lasted about two years. However, the college students/musicians had more music to play. Forming Jukebox The Ghost in 2006, the group put out its first album – Let Live & Let Ghosts – in 2008. The band followed it up with a second album – Everything Under The Sun – two years later.
The band released its third and latest album, Safe Travels, on Yep Roc Records in June 2012. Considered a turning point for the band, the album has been praised for its songs reflecting how the individual band members have grown more mature from their own life experiences.
Thornewill chatted with Pollstar about those experiences and described why the band remains a three-piece unit without a bassist and what it was like for them to play their first big sold-out show. But above all, Thornewill gave us a fascinating glimpse into what it’s like to be in a band on the rise with more growth, albums and concerts ahead of it.
Jesse Kristin, Ben Thornewill and Tommy Siegel.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people might have about Jukebox The Ghost?
I think our music often gets dismissed as often so upbeat and positive that it’s lacking depth and that there’s a lack of serious songs and seriousness in our catalog and what we’re doing. I think that’s because of the singles, and we definitely err towards the lighthearted and we strive to entertain, but we really do sort of marry songs that enable us to put on really good shows but still have lyrical depth, harmonic depth and something that’s a little more substantial.
Are you always keeping the live performance in mind while composing?
No, not when composing, but when choosing songs for a record and arranging them, absolutely.
When I write, I’m writing for whatever song happens to be. I don’t know, it takes on its own world. You get a song, you feel a shake, you make it what it wants to be and then find a place for it.
What’s in your head when you begin writing a song? Do you hear a melody, see images in your mind or something else?
Almost none of it. When I write, I sit at the piano and play. When something sounds right, I let it keep going. I also find that songs write themselves, at least in the beginning, they write their own ideas. From there it’s figuring out how to deal with it. Once I have the germ of an idea, a feeling for a song, then the work can come – finding the lyrics. I’m always taking down notes and writing down little ideas, and sometimes I might pull from those past notes and thoughts and put them into a song and find a place for them. But I’ve never done, not successfully, walking down a street and I hum a tune, think that’s great and write a song like that.
So you’ve never woken up in the middle of the night and written down a lyric or hummed a melody into a recorder?
I did that once this year for the first time ever. I heard a song in my dream … and woke up crying because it was so beautiful. … I forced myself up, walked over to the piano, played it and knew the key, knew the melody. … And I still haven’t figured out what to do with that melody [and] harmony.
From a songwriter’s standpoint, when you begin working with a new melody, something that popped into your head, do you ever worry that it might be music you may heard before, perhaps years earlier, and you just don’t remember?
I don’t worry about it. Everything is recycling. Any great melody or chord progression that I’ve written, it’s stolen from somewhere. … Trying to remember it and recreate it and messing it up and hearing the little bit I like.
When people talk about talk about inspiration, especially musical inspiration, musical references, all they’re talking about is the catalog of music they had sort of internalized and thereby subsequently, accidentally ripped off in one form or another, whether it’s an idea, a feeling, a texture or whatever. If you sit down and write a song and someone tells you you’ve just written “Tiny Dancer,” then it’s a problem.
While doing press for Safe Travels, Tommy Siegel said, “It felt like the music was finally growing with us. Songs that relate to who we are as people right now, not who we were when we were 19 or 20.” From your own viewpoint, do you think the band’s growth has as much to do with three men maturing over the years as it does with creativity, song-subject matters and honing your chops as musicians?
Absolutely. I think it’s all the same thing. When you’re writing from your heart you’re writing from your life experiences and our experiences now are different than when we were … 19 and 20.
Especially on this record. It being the third record and, I guess, being a little more established, we didn’t feel the same pressure to write hits or … write for the fans. We were writing for us and doing the topics that were important to us and then felt it would still go over well with the fans.
Can you cite a personal experience that influenced the growth in your music?
Yeah. The year before I went through a break-up. I moved to New York. I lost my grandfather. Jesse lost his father. [They were] these very adult themes that we always thought about, that I always thought about and had written about, but hadn’t ever experienced quite so viscerally, quite so first-hand. At the same time we felt comfortable writing about that.
What did you listen to while growing up?
It’s weird. In truth, I didn’t listen to very much music at all. I was a classical pianist so when I was listening to music it was Beethoven. … Whatever the music I was playing.
I got into bands and I had, like, a Led Zeppelin CD, a weird early ’90s pop music CD. A couple of Ben Folds records. But in truth, and even still, I rarely listen to music. A couple of songs a day at most.
If I want to hear music, I play it. I mean, I listen to jazz, or classical when I’m in the mood. But I’m not one of those people that sits in a [quiet] room and thinks they should put on music. If it’s quiet, I love and appreciate the silence.
You met your bandmates while all three of you were students at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. At that time did you see the band growing as part of your musical educations or did you see it as something separate from college?
It [a music career] was always a goal of mine, It became more [of a] reality for all three of us as college went on. We started cultivating a small, legitimate fan base in D.C. and sort of made us think, “Yeah. We can give this a go.” But there was never any question of dropping out to do it.
What do you think were some of the major benchmarks for the band?
There are the answers that are easy – doing the “Late Show With David Letterman,” playing Lollapalooza, SXSW – all those stereotypically, cliché sort of things. It felt like such a slow, rewarding, organic growth. I think we’re at 650 shows now, and every time we play a show we earn another set of fans. And every time we turn back, some more people come. Every now and then it’s good to step back and see what you’ve accomplished – playing headline shows, selling out a venue for the first time. Selling out venues in advance has been happening for the first time, the past year and a half. And those are benchmarks. Mostly, I know where that came from. I’ve done the work that got us there. They are definitely gifts.
The benchmark thing is hard. The first show that we played in D.C. when, all of a sudden, 600 … 800 people came – that was a benchmark. That was one of those, “OK, you can do this. You just got to make this happen.” That was a big deal. And, as far as what our friends and families thought of us, playing the “David Letterman” show was huge because that validated us in their eyes even though we played 300 shows before that.
The D.C. show you mentioned, that had to be a thrill to peek out from behind the curtain and see all those people who have come just to hear your band.
It was amazing and terrifying. It’s a drug. You get it and you want to figure out how to do it again and where you can do it. And that still happens. There’s a danger of it becoming routine, because doing anything over and over again you get used to it. But you still have those big nights when you sit back and look at the crowd and think about it.
Is performing live one of the best parts of your career?
Absolutely. If not the best. It’s so rewarding and thrilling. It pumps you full of adrenaline. It’s entertainment. I don’t know how to explain it.
Jukebox The Ghost performed on one of Barenaked Ladies’ ”Ships And Dip” ocean cruises. Did you get a lot of time to enjoy the cruise as a passenger or was it pretty much a working trip?
It’s fun. You play three shows over four days. Everything is backlined and set up for you. Most of the time you’re hanging out on the deck or spending a day in Mexico. You come back an hour early, play your show and then you hang out. It’s amazing. I recommend it to anyone who has an opportunity to play a rock cruise.
Jukebox The Ghost is piano, guitar and drums. Was it always the plan to be a tightly knit trio or did it just end up that way?
Both at the exact same time. That’s what we ended up with, and, for some reason we never looked for a bass player. And every time we thought of getting someone else in there, it seemed to mess with what we had going and what is unique with us. It’s what we had and what we’ve sort of learned to love. It’s what made us who we are as musicians. It defines the sound of the band, in a special way, because we’re compensating for not having auxiliary members or a bass player or another guitarist or whatever.
Have the three of you reached a point where you might often think alike, perhaps even finish each other’s sentences?
It [grew] into marriage, into brotherhood, into God knows what. There’s such a deep and profound understanding of what we have with each other. It’s actually great, especially the last few years. We know each other so well, we know how to stay out of each other’s hair, how to be good to each other.
I often marvel and wonder how any band manages to stay together. If you put any group of creative, independent, likely eccentric people, into a room or a van or a shitty bar for months at a time, it’s likely to explode. And people do it voluntarily all the time, and love it. I think the three of us are genuinely decent people who like and respect each other and have a common goal.
And it helps that we’ve all known each other … Jesse was 17, I was 18, Tommy must have been 19. … We’ve known each other since we were kids, I’d say. So that history is valuable.
Touring wise, what moves the band from place-to-place?
We just, last fall, upgraded to a [Mercedes-Benz] Sprinter. We’ve been in a Ford eight-passenger for 160,000 miles, so we definitely put in our time with that. We started bringing people on the road. We’re not at bus status yet. We upgraded to a Sprinter for the last tour. It makes a difference. It’s incredible.
You and your bandmates have been together for 10 years and three albums. What has surprised you the most about the music business since you began?
I didn’t know anything going into it so I had no expectations for what I was going to do and I think you have to have expectations to be surprised. I think the way things have changed and the way we have grown has been surprising in how hard it is. It’s been surprising in how [we’ve been] capable of cultivating a fan base and tour and tour and tour.
Whenever we release a new record, everyone gets it in their head that it will be the next biggest thing and that we’re going to blow up. I’m not surprised that it doesn’t happen but I’m also surprised that it works as well as it does and that we have a career and yet we haven’t blown up, that we don’t have a radio hit but we can play to 500, a thousand people, whatever it is, here and there.
I guess it’s a testament to our work ethic, touring and believing what we’re doing. It’s such an over-saturated market in a way that it wasn’t. It’s constantly changing and everyone is doing new things to survive.
I don’t know the answer. I like to think that the fact that everybody knows each other, [that it’s] a community at this certain level of touring. I’ve been surprised in a pleasant way as to how giving everybody is. There’s sort of an understood connection between all touring musicians. Everyone that’s there knows that they’ve gone through the same crap to get there. I really like that. It’s like a weird club.
Do you see a common denominator among your fans?
Earnestness. Decent people. People come to our shows completely open, bright-eyed, fresh-faced. There doesn’t feel as if there’s any social obligation [as if] they’re being told to be there. They’re only there because they like us. I think there’s a certain type of person who connects with who we are. I think it’s people sort of like us.
What’s the weirdest or strangest place where you’ve heard your music?
Whenever I hear one of my songs on the radio or in a movie, it doesn’t even process. I think, “That sounds familiar” and I move right on. So my guess is that I’ve missed loads of opportunities to hear it.
The first time we got a placement in a movie it was in “Diary Of A Wimpy Kid.” We had a song played in the background, it was like a dramatic theme. Two kids had just been fighting. We’d gone to the movie just to see this part because it was the first time we had placed anything. So that was surreal in itself. All of a sudden it cues over to a record player, the needle drops and Beastie Boys are playing 10 times longer. So that was a really strange introduction to, I don’t know, songs as parts of movies.
But are you actively trying to place your music in films and on TV?
Always as is everybody. It’s such an over-saturated market right now because that’s one of the last places where people are actually making money and [people] are actually paying for music. So everybody is doing it – established writers, new writers, are trying.
For decades, the business model in music was to make records, get radio to play those records, sell records and sell concert tickets. But Jukebox The Ghost has always existed in today’s world that includes Internet, file-sharing and massive digital distribution. Do you ever find yourself looking back with envy at the business of music as it was in the pre-Internet world?
Absolutely. And mostly I just think of what one has to do now versus then. Not that people who had hits and toured didn’t also work their asses off. It’s a slippery slope to start thinking of where we would be if we were doing what we’re doing [but] in the late ’90s.
Who knows? On one hand, maybe you never get picked up and you play in local bars forever. On the other hand, somebody finds you and get the chance to explode in the way that the infrastructure isn’t there now. But you can make a career out of being a musician and not have either of those things nowadays.
You do whatever you can. People often say that we’re doing it “the old model,” that we’re “old school” and how we built a career because we’ve been doing it by touring and getting in front of people. I’m not arguing with that. We didn’t make a decision. We didn’t say, “Let’s go back to the ’70s and tour our faces off.” We’ll do whatever we can to do this and find success and get our music to people. That’s just how it works. And I think more and more bands are doing that.
Although you’ve been playing together for 10 years, the band Jukebox The Ghost has been in existence for six years. Where do you see the band six years from now?
I have no idea. On one hand, still doing the exact same thing we’re doing. I imagine we’re going to continue making music and putting out records. If, in six years, we’re at 1,200 shows? I have no idea. That seems maddening. But it all depends. It’s such a volatile and fluid existence, if something happens one way or another, we’ll deal with it and roll. But we’ll always keep making music, keep recording music, and hope for the best.
“I often marvel and wonder how any band manages to stay together.”
Jukebox The Ghost embarks on a new tour early next month, beginning in Portland, Maine at the Port City Music Hall Feb. 6. Other stops include Hartford, Conn., at Arch Street Tavern Feb. 7; New York City’s Webster Hall Oct. 8; Baltimore, Md., at Ottobar Feb. 9; Charlottesville, Va., at The Southern Feb. 10 and Cincinnati at Taft Theatre Feb. 12. Traveling through mid-April, other destinations include Orlando, Atlanta, San Diego, Fresno, Seattle, Toronto, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. For more information, visit JukeboxTheGhost.com.