Over the last 10 years, Washington, D.C. trio Jukebox the Ghost has remained busy etching its petroglyph-like ghost logo into the history of piano rock.
From more humble beginnings in dorm room shows at George Washington University, to near constant tours that crisscross the country, singer-pianist Ben Thornewill, guitarist Tommy Siegel and drummer Jesse Kristin continue to find ways to spice up their identity with each new album they create.
Jukebox the Ghost had to break down some walls to make its latest LP, Off to the Races.
“I don’t think we really knew what we were doing at first,” Siegel recently said in a call from the road. The band is known for its unorthodox methods and often layers 70, 80 or even 170 tracks on top of each other, as was the case with new cut “Jumpstarted.”
Cautious of stagnation, the three wanted reinvent themselves again and give the new album its own identity.
“It’s funny because now we’re in this period where we’re almost reexamining ourselves,” Siegel said. “[We can] kind of pick and choose the things we like about our discography. In this record, people might hear elements of our prior records, some of the quirkiness of our prior records, some of the retro flair of our second record, and some of the tight pop arrangements of our last two records.”
RIFF: Single “Everbody’s Lonely deals people’s addiction to distractions that keep them isolated. How did you write that song?
Tommy Siegel: We recorded it with some producer friend in Los Angeles. It started as a snarky little song kind of as a send up to radio, and it’s a really great irony that our first real mainstream airplay was “Everybody’s Lonely.” I think we just picked the single because we thought it just encapsulated a lot of different things about Jukebox the Ghost into a single pop song setting. We thought it was a palatable version of what we’ve been trying to do as a band, but distilled in a way that could be put on the radio.
What other messages do you hope to convey with the album?
We’ve always been a crowd-pleasing sort of band. We sneak existential lyrics in sometimes. But by and large, we got our start playing parties and playing to friends, and we really want people to have a good time. We don’t want [our records] to be shallow. We think it’s cool to make happy music that people can have fun with.
After Off to the Races was recorded and edited, and you were able to take a step back and absorb the album as a whole, did you make any choices you would not have made on day one?
Well, I don’t think we really knew what we were doing at first. With every record, you don’t know exactly what you’re doing until you have a few songs already in the bag. I think we were all pleasantly surprised with the retro sensibility that crept in on the new record. We always come in with too many demos, and this time we probably had 70 or 80 demos cumulatively that we were picking from and we just kind of skewed more toward sunny pop that has a little bit of retro flair.
Did any other artists influence or inspire you while you were making Off to the Races?
We all have our influences just as people, but I think the influences for me that shine through on this record are The Beatles, Beach Boys, Elvis Costello and the Kinks. I was on a really retro kick so my thing with this record was I really wanted the songs to sound like you just popped on some 1970s AM station that has been going along in a parallel universe for decades that’s somehow modern but still sounds like the early Beatles. The song “Diane” [was heavily inspired by] the album Beach Boys’ Party, where its just them playing in a living room, and you can hear their friends drinking and singing along in the album. I kind of wanted it to feel like that—just a big, rowdy acoustic sing-along.
How do you feel Jukebox the Ghost has changed over the last 10 years?
It’s funny because now we’re in this period where we’re almost reexamining ourselves. We’ve been a band long enough to where we can sort of poke our heads out and see our whole catalog for what it is and pick and chose the things we like.
How do you feel you’ve pushed the envelope in regards to your quirkiness on Off to the Races?
Part of what was fun about this record was, we do this event called “HalloQueen” that we’ve been doing for a few years now, where we play a set of our own stuff, then we take a break, get into costume, and we play a whole set of Queen covers dressed up as Queen. Having to do a deep dive into Queen’s catalog for a few years in a row gave us more confidence this time around to really go with our weirder instinct. We tried to not dumb down the arrangements even if the song was catchy. So if we wanted a 30-vocal-harmony stack or if we wanted a wacky foot plant guitar solo, we just kinda went for it. For this record, we used Queen as our spiritual guide. There’s a few other bands on the radio that are a little funkier, but they’re weird. We just went for it on this album, more so than we did on the previous albums.
With Jukebox the Ghost on its biggest tour so far, are there any milestones still left on your personal Bingo cards?
In a way, we’ve already hit the milestones that we’ve already dreamed of. I feel like in high school and college I was going to the club and going, “Wow, imagine what it would be like to play there.” And now we are. But you know, the sky’s the limit. We’re having some alternative radio play with “Everybody’s Lonely” for the first time in our career and we could be a one-hit wonder and we’d still be delighted.
How is the tour unfolding?
Fans picture touring as a very glamorous thing, but the things we actually do on tour, I feel, never get asked about—like eating old bananas at gas stations, or hanging out at truck stops. We don’t get asked enough questions about truck stops.
Follow writer Nick Gumas at Twitter.com/NickGGumas.