By: Thomas D. Mooney
Blues-rock revivalists Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights are back in town. The Dallas based JTNL have been steadily climbing their way up, getting check-marks, head-nods, praise, and endorsements from media, their peers, established and legendary blues institutions, and most importantly, fans.
Tyler and company are one of the few bands in line to take the “Texas Blues Torch.” And just because they would probably brush it off and thank you if you told them that yourself, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Not only do they possess the musicianship and sound of great blues-rock acts of yester-year, they possess that same work ethic.
“It seems like it’s been really fast, but it’s really been two or three years of really busting our asses here in Texas,” says the modest, yet determined Tyler. “It’s risen here in Texas a lot faster than it has the rest of the country. But, that’s because we’ve spent a lot of time playing Texas. Over the last two years, we’ve spent time trying to go to the rest of the country, like New York, L.A., Chicago, and everywhere in between. And it takes a lot of time to break into a market where people start to go ‘oh man, these guys are really good.'”
Last week, New Slang talked with Tyler as he was driving from Amarillo on to their next show. .
New Slang: You guys have toured and opened for a number of huge acts (such as ZZ Top, Black Crowes, Leon Russell, Erykah Badu) as well as played some of the nation’s major music festivals (such as Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits). At the same time, you’re still playing a lot of smaller venues in comparison, like The Blue Light. Is that a fine line to walk where you’re able to balance the two different styles out?
Jonathan Tyler: Well, we really don’t change ourselves on whether or not we’re playing for huge crowds or not. It’s pretty much going to be the same show. You know, we’re always going to try and play well. But normally, we don’t want to be the opening act for major players…you know, playing for 30 minutes or 40 minutes sets every night. We like to play our own shows. It’s just the concept of building up your own audience, and then I think sometimes it helps to go out and open for another artist. It’s always nice to be invited to play festivals, because you know, it’s a little different from going and opening for someone else. You know, they invite you and you’re kind of like their handpicked choice to come and want you to be apart of [their festival]. But, we really make our living in our own tours being the headline group. The Blue Light’s just been one of those venues from the beginning to be real supportive of us. And every time we come there, it’s been really great and we’re always really taken care of by them. And the people show up in Lubbock. So, it’s one of those relationships where we’ll just keep playing there.
NS: Speaking of some of those acts, was there anything you learned from them firsthand?
JT: Well, I think not firsthand. I don’t think necessarily anyone has taken me in and said “here’s what you need to now.” There’s been conversations that have been had, but you know, the artists we’ve toured with, just being an onlooker and watching, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot from just watching somebody. When you get along with somebody, like the guys from Black Crowes, we like the same kinds of music, we’re in the same kinds of stuff, so you just kind of pick up on things. Guys like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, he’s such a wise, older guy that I don’t think he really goes out and tells everybody his secrets to the blues.
NS: Yeah, I guess I worded what I was meaning wrong. I didn’t necessarily mean firsthand in that take you to the side kind of way, but rather just from watching.
JT: Oh yeah. Well no doubt about that. I think I’ve learned from every person I’ve played with, not just celebrities.There’s been other band we’ve toured around with that nobody knows about, that we learn things from. And sometimes, you know, you learn what not to do [laughs].
NS: Dallas is still your base. And they’ve been really supportive of you guys. You guys have won numerous awards from The Dallas Observer such as Best Male Vocalist, Best Blues Act, Best Group, etc. What do you think when you get awarded with these kind of accolades?
JT: Well I try not to think about it to be honest with you. I really don’t read anything that’s written about us–praise of negative. I just don’t want to be influenced by it. I mean, it is nice to be recognized and for people to see what we’re trying to do and to understand it. But at the same time, you don’t want it to go to your head. And you can’t get down if you don’t win.
NS: Now musically, you guys are obviously influenced by blues and classic rock. But one thing I think that goes less noticed, is that there’s a lot of old southern gospel in your voice.
JT: Oh yeah, definitely. I love it (gospel music). I was born and raised around the church. Playing and singing with my family. My grandmother is an organ B-3 player for a church. So I was around that kind of singing when I was really young. As I got older, I kind of got away from it–from around middle school through high school–I got out of the old gospel singing. But then I came back to it when I discovered a couple of great artists like The Staples Singers and the Reverend Charlie Jackson. Then you know, you get into things like “John the Revelator” [by Blind Willie Johnson], Son House, that kind of stuff. So there’s a lot of melding of that and blues, like Lightning Hopkins, my favorite is John Lee Hooker. So in the end, that’s what we’re trying to do; mix that gospel, the blues, and rock and roll.
NS: I’ve read that all or the majority of you’re songs start off being written on an acoustic guitar. I think that right there is a real traditional blues way of doing it. You still doing it that way?
JT: We’ll we’re definitely experimenting with different ways of writing down. We’ve been going with different guitar riffs on the newer stuff we’re working on. We’re going with more where the lyrics lay on top of the music rather than the other way around. A lot of that has to do with our guitar player, Brandon [Pinckard] has been writing a lot of guitar parts. We still do the acoustic thing for sure. We carry it around and play it in the van. But when I first started out, it was just me playing acoustic. So I would just play shows myself so a lot of the songs from the album were based around that. But now that we’re making records together as a band, it’s kind of changed. It’s not all on my shoulders…I think we’ve got a good group of talented songwriters now, so we just go about it however it comes.
NS: “Pardon Me” came out last year and like you said, you guys are working on new material, when can we expect that in studio album form?
JT: We’re getting songs out right now through December, January, February. Continue to pump songs out. Probably lay low at the house. We’re not going to tour much and write. I would suspect that we would start to record in March or April. Then, I’d expect it would be released in the summer time. I would hope, but’s it’s hard to say.
NS: I’ll get you out with this. What’s the best thing about being Jonathan Tyler?
JT: [Laughs] I don’t know if there’s any good thing. It’s all equalized by the good and the bad. There’s good things and bad things [laughs]. I don’t know, I don’t want to come off wrong.
NS: Fair enough [laughs].