In the dark days of the Bush administration, I saw a very young Jukebox the Ghost perform at Fort Reno. Only a few of weeks out from the release of their debut album, Let Live and Let Ghost, the band already had the confidence of a band on a mission, separating them from the more amateurism acts sharing the stage that summer’s night.
“Is that Dick Cheney’s castle?” Ben Thornewill, vocalist and piano man, asked the audience at one point, calling our attention to a towering turret in the distance. It was a small comment, and was followed by group speculation regarding the distant castle’s many possible dungeons, labyrinth hallways and windowless rooms, but also, it was a kind of reassurance that the whimsicalness of their music was no façade, that these dudes were genuine—a seemingly rare quality amongst pop acts. And while most of their set was clearly unknown to the audience, when the band broke into “Hold It In” people quit from their picnicking to get on their feet and dance along. The spontaneous rush to the stage was not lost on the band, which collectively acknowledged: “Did we just have a That Thing You Do moment?”
Since then the band has put out three more full-length albums, toured extensively, and most recently, signed to a big-deal label, Cherrytree Records. And though with each new record the band has explored new musical terrain, the playful quality of their brand of power pop has kept it instant accessible fun. Gaining lofty compares to Ben Folds and Billie Joel, both of which feel a tad bit too easy, a result somewhat due to the extreme shortage of piano in rock these days (seriously, where did rock organ go?) Jukebox the Ghost has established itself as a reliable source of good time, sunny day jams.
Luckily, after a few missed connections caused by fax machines and haircuts, we were able to speak with Ben. He was kind enough to entertain some questions concerning the disappearance of piano gods, the band’s D.C. beginnings, and whatever it means to be power pop.
How life on the new label, Cherrytree Records?
You know it’s funny, we’re only a month—a month and a half in—it’s going great. We love working with them. It’s one of those things where nothing concrete has happened yet, but everyone there is so smart and engaged and thinking about doing the right things. We’re feeling really good about it.
So you’re about to re-release your debut album (since I liked it the first time, I imagine I’ll like it again), but that must be exciting to see it be released again. Is there going to be any bonus goodies?
So there was a weird thing that happened when we switched labels where it [Let Live and Let Ghost] got taken down from Spotify and everything for a minute. It’s actually in March that it’s going to be officially re-released, and there’s a whole other bonus disc that’ll be attached with it, which we haven’t announced what that’s going to be yet.
You guys love doing covers. I saw you guys do “Bulls on Parade” and Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance with Somebody.”
Those are some throwbacks. I mean there’s been talk about of doing a cover EP or doing a big release of stuff. It is something that every tour we try to come up with a new cover song that we can throw out there. So we’ve been doing “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen on this tour.
Who picks them? How do you guys decide on these covers?
Someone will bring in an idea, and we’ll test it out. A good example of one that I didn’t think we’d actually do that I suggested was Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” thinking no one would ever go for that. And we played it, and it fucking killed! So you never know. If it’s a suggestion, conversation, or a friend suggesting. We have to think it’s a decent enough song to do. It’s for the show, so as long as it’s a big enough show moment—we’ll do it.
Honestly, I think you guys give pop a good name. And you’ve gotten comparisons to likes of Billy Joel and Ben Folds. What is it that you think really makes a good pop song?
I think that every song is different. I wish there was a formula, I wish I knew the answer to what makes a good pop song, a good pop song. Or what makes a good song, a good song. I think a lot of it is that weird emotional gut feeling. It either hits you or it doesn’t. You just have to wait for that moment for it to hit you; and it could be a lyric; it could be a melody; it could be a chord progression; it could just be a feeling. It’s sort of indescribable. But you do know, as a songwriter, I do think you know when you’ve written a really good song. But you don’t know how you did it. I think you approach every song the same and sometimes it works.
Do you have a favorite pop diva?
I think Sia is doing incredible things. She’s my favorite writer. “Chandelier” on that record is just great.
How do you feel about being associated with power pop? Also, what the hell is power pop? Who comes up with this shit?
I have no idea. I actually gave an interview in the van the other day with everyone listening, and someone said we were power pop. And I was like, ‘that’s not fair power pops like’ and I started talking about boy bands. Afterwards, Tommy, who is the guitarist and singer, was like: ‘Ben, do you know what power pop is?’ And it turns out I didn’t. I guess what its suppose to mean is really big, catchy, complex but still there pop music. Power pop music, its not like drippy pop music—I don’t know, labels are labels, and they’re putting us in a box.
Part of it is, I think, because you guys bring in the piano. To me, it seems rock piano has been in a decline. There’s no more organ in rock music. I don’t know if Steve Winwood killed it or the synthesizer in general. It was essential in the beginning of rock, but it seems to be fading away or morphed into something else.
There hasn’t been—Ben Folds has had a fantastic career, but he’s not on the level of Elton or Billy—that huge alt piano artist. There hasn’t really been one. There’s a lot of genre crossing. Like Coldplay was a very piano ballad-y band in the beginning, or there’s the Regina Specter style. But there hasn’t been that piano god thing. Maybe that died, maybe it’s dead. I don’t know where I was going with that. What was the question again?
Just wanted you to hear you weight in on the state of pianos in rock music. I feel like it’s very versatile, you can get a lot out of a piano. You can do melody, harmony, rhythm.
Don’t get me wrong, piano is my favorite instrument. I’m incredibly biased—I play it. I don’t know why there isn’t more, but then again it can do everything. People are able to fit it in more subtly. They’re not anchoring the band with piano. I think that’s something we’re doing differently, anchoring the band with piano. But even with that we’re doing a lot of synthesizer work and trying to get weird with it. I keep waiting for the next great piano band to appear, that’s like the iconic piano player, so I don’t know when that’ll happen.
Do you usually write the songs around the piano?
I always write on piano. Sometimes—actually, I’ll write on synth occasionally. Like with your song “Somebody” off out last record. That was conceived while I was playing synthesizers with a weird pulse-y beat, but then I finished that on piano. I’d prefer to write at the piano, always.
Excited to be returning to D.C.? You guys are a D.C. band. I remember seeing you guys at Fort Reno—you had a That Thing You Do moment.
I remember that show particularly well. That was one of the first, ‘oh wow! We have some fans here. This is a cool thing that just happened.’ But yeah, we love coming back to D.C. It’s one of those things where we haven’t lived in D.C.—now it’s almost an embarrassing long time—we left in 2007, 8 years almost. And yet it still feels like home. There’s obviously a culture that’s been maintained there, and it feels like a homecoming. That’s where we got our start. That’s where we played all of those…this is not Fort Reno—but like the terrible shows, or frat parties, or fundraisers, or graduate casino night at the Hippodrome for George Washington University. The shows that most bands would care to forget.
But those are foundational years.
That’s where we figured out how to do with we do, and spent those years as a really bad band. I remember when we first tried to get booked at the Black Cat. We were going for the low stage…the small stage area…the backstage—that’s the word I’m looking for. And the person who booked it was like, ‘we can’t book you, you’re too college.’ And that line, you’re too college.
What does that even mean?
Just that we weren’t any good—spazzy and over-caffeinated, trying to do too much. I think it was a bit harsh.
But I definitely saw you play the main stage.
The funny thing is we never played the backstage; we only played the main stage. Our only show there was for our CD release at the main stage. So we tried, but we skipped it. And of the sudden it was evident we could draw a couple hundred people, so we got the main stage.
Any future projects/events you’re excited about, especially in regards to you joining Cherrytree?
We’re doing a cool thing on Monday. The label is having their ten-year anniversary party, here, in New York at Webster Hall. We’re playing and Feist is playing and Sting is playing, and I actually get to play piano with Sting. I’m in Sting’s band for two songs. So there’s a perk of being on a label with Sting. I get to play “Every Breath You Take” and “If I Ever Lose My Faith.” I have no idea what to expect, all the talk—even from the label—is we don’t know what’s going to happen, so just play the songs and see what happens.