Journey through the Badlands: An interview with Jack the Radio | Music
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Friday, October 16, 2015

Journey through the Badlands: An interview with Jack the Radio

Posted by on Fri, Oct 16, 2015 at 10:33 AM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STORY PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo by Story Photography
With the release of Jack the Radio’s terrific third studio album looming, Spencer Griffith sat on the back patio of Slim’s on an early October weeknight to talk with the Raleigh outfit’s singer/guitarist George Hage and multi-instrumentalist Danny Johnson. They discussed their songwriting and recording processes, Badland’s two-sided sound and growing through the local community.

Jack the Radio plays Lincoln Theatre Friday, Oct. 16, at 9 p.m. with Young Yonder and Caleb Caudle. The band also plays at Mystery Brewing in Hillsborough Saturday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m.

INDY: What inspired the concept of differentiated sounds on each side for this record?

GEORGE HAGE:
It came across very naturally as we were writing and recording. Badlands was done over the past three-plus years. Our workflow is that we like to go record batches of three songs like every other month. We did that over the last three years and, as you can imagine with writing over that period of time, there was some variation in the sound and in what we were doing. As we were going along, it just naturally became very obvious that we had two feels for the record. We talked about maybe doing two EPs, but then we started talking about vinyl and the concept of two acts with a side one and side two. It just worked out perfectly with the batch of songs we had. We did 18 songs, and 12 are on the record. Six fit very well together and [another] six fit very well together on the other side, but there’s still’s definitely a connection—sound-wise, music-wise, lyrically—between both.

The first side is much different than what we've come to expect from Jack the Radio. Is that due to newer influences or just a sound that you hadn’t expressed or explored as much before?

GH:
It’s definitely sides that we hadn’t expressed. Ironically, two of the songs on the A side were ideas that we had written four or five years ago that didn’t make sense on the other albums. I mean, we were still figuring out who we were as a band. With Lowcountry, which came out in 2012, Chris [Sayles, bassist] had just joined the band. Danny had been in the band a little over a year, so we were still figuring out what we could do. With some of those older ideas that didn’t fit the other albums, we figured this was the time we could do them. When we played them together, they came out maybe a little heavier than before but still had some groove to them.

DANNY JOHNSON: We were able to find an organic way of doing them. We all listen to stuff from across the spectrum. While we were figuring out who we were, we knew that we could do that swampy, indie-blues stomp thing, but those other things that we listen to started sneaking in a little bit more. It was fun to figure out how to start blending other ideas into what are still Jack the Radio songs. They’re just darker, and there’s a lot more keys on that side. We just let it get weirder as opposed to keeping it upbeat.

GH: Even subconsciously, thinking about where we live and all the festivals that have just happened, there’s that influx of music and bands for Hopscotch, IBMA and even SPARKcon, and now most recently with Moogfest (moving to Durham). Badlands was definitely influenced, to an extent, by what’s going on around us. This is the first record, for instance, where we used Moog keyboards. We’ve always had and liked those, but we found a reason for it and a place that it fit.

Did you try to distinguish the sides lyrically as well?

GH:
There’s definitely a flow. I’m very into comic books. Early on, we had this theme of a sci-fi spaghetti western where the A side is with the synthesizers and some of the heavier sounds—more of that "space cowboy"—while the B side is more of the return to home and the familiar setting, really relating to our older tunes with slide and lap steel. That was definitely an inspiration behind this poster, too.

DJ: I don’t write any of the lyrics, but from just hearing them and reading them, you can tell a difference in the two sides. That A side has more wanderlust and is more dark. There’s some bummer songs on side B, but it’s more of heartbreak. “City Slippin” is more of an upbeat return to the “normal,” so if you look at that versus “Leaves” on the other side, you have a difference in vibe.

When you talked about the workflow of the band, is that because you guys are so busy with other projects?

GH:
Not really. I feel like every band has a different process, but for us, that every two month (session) gives us time to write, practice, plan for the studio…

DJ: …and play the songs live. That’s one of the big things about us doing things the way we do. I came into that when I joined the band, they were already doing the thing where every couple months they’d do three songs, but I love the idea that I’ll have played the song four or five times live. We had a couple of the American Aquarium dudes that came over while we were recording and they were calling us "the pit crew of recording" because George would knock through a couple guitar tracks in 25 minutes, then I’d knock out my stuff. They were laughing and saying, "This is shit that should take you three days in the studio," but we’d already played it live. 

In terms of songwriting, George, do you and A.C. Hill collaborate from the very start or do you each have your own ideas that you bring in and develop from there?

GH:
Honestly, it’s different for every song. For some of these tracks, A.C. will have a riff or a vocal melody and then I might have a chorus and vocal melody. We put them together and have a complete song. For some of them, we may just have a hook and the band puts it together and puts parts on top of it. Then there are some songs where I had demos pretty much done, so then it was just adding other people’s parts in or figuring out how to translate it to lap steel or Moog.

How different does that dual songwriter and dual lead vocalist situation feel compared to other bands?

GH:
I’ve known A.C. for 12 years and, for me, it’s almost the perfect writing situation because we’re both pretty laid-back. There’s not really any ego there. On some of these songs, I wrote the lyrics, and it made more sense for him to sing it versus me. I’m totally open to that.

DJ: That’s one of the things that I always thought was cool about the band. I was watching Drive-By Truckers videos today, and there were Patterson’s songs and there were Jason’s songs and they were very different. I can spot whose idea our songs were initially, but it’s only because either I was in the room or I because I know when it’s a total A.C. melody.

What’s the thought process when you add in a third voice to a song, like you did on this album on tracks with Elizabeth Hopkins and BJ Barham?

GH:
With Elizabeth, it was pretty easy because that song was written as a duet with a guy and a girl, so we knew we wanted a female vocalist and really loved that Sheryl Crow quality. Even Al [Jacob, of Warrior Sound]—the guy who engineered the album—when we were in the studio, he’d never heard her before and as she was singing, he was like, "Holy shit, she sounds like Sheryl Crow!" He was also very complimentary of BJ’s voice. We’ve known BJ for years and have a lot of ties with American Aquarium through the guys in the band. Danny’s played with them for some of their shows and Chris, our bass player, has filled in for shows as well.

DJ: To me, the BJ thing very much made sense, just like on the last album when J Kutchma came and sang on a track. It goes back to that narrative structure, at least on the song BJ was on. Each verse is its own little tale. In the studio, there was the idea of splitting it up—George will sing this part of the story, A.C. will sing this one, then the rest of us were sitting around saying "I don’t wanna sing that." So the idea was, "What other interesting narrative voice is out there that we know?" Plus, BJ’s lyric was more old-school Aquarium. 

Did BJ write those lyrics for his verse?

GH:
No, that was one I wrote. I’ve known BJ and have worked with him, but I’ve never written something for him to sing. I approached him and said, "Feel free to change anything," and he’s like, "I didn’t write this. You wrote this. I’m going to sing what you wrote down."

On this record, you had those local guest vocalists. You’ve been doing Hopscotch day parties the past couple years where you’ve kind of brought your friends along. You’ve got these collaborations with Raleigh Denim and Mystery Brewing. Is there a lot of intentionality behind trying to cultivate that local feel and involve a lot of folks from the area, compared to a band like American Aquarium that goes out and tours all the time?


GH:
Absolutely. We’re not a band that can go out and tour heavily like Aquarium, so what we’re trying to do is create content, create events, and create things through which we can connect with people. To me, the best way to do that, which we figured out a couple years ago, is through community and getting as many talented people as we can together to reach as many people as we can. 

DJ: You can find a fanbase locally; there’s plenty of artists that do that and play to their fanbase for the next however many years they can hold out as a band. For us, we had that conversation about finding out where people are and taking it to them. Part of that was hooking up with the beer community. We’ve always been friends with the folks at Big Boss and Mystery, so the idea of involving them in the music thing, we figured, would be great for all of us. It’s not fencing yourself into, "We’re a band, and we just do music," which is limiting if you’re not going to go out and tour hundreds of nights a year. You’ve got to start stretching out, whether it’s through the art or through hooking up with Raleigh Denim when we shot that video in their space.

GH: And, of course, it’s supporting people that we respect, whether it’s bands, denim workshops or breweries. I love that sentiment of finding where people are and, with this album, there’s art, music, denim, comic books and breweries involved. 

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