by: Thomas D. Mooney
Jonathan Tyler has been itching to release some new music for a while. And for the first time a good, long while (Pardon Me, his last album, was released in 2010), he’s able to. He’s recently off his Atlantic Records deal and you can get the sense from him, it’s a bit of a weight off his shoulders.
He’s relaxed and reinvigorated in a way that we’ve not seen for a while. That’s not to say Tyler hasn’t been writing and working on songs with his fellow Northern Lights bandmates. He’s been doing so pretty nonstop for the past three years without much–if any–making it for mass consumption. Going to a JTNL show at any point during the last couple years, keeping an eye on YouTube and Tyler’s Tumblr has really been the only way to hear some of that new material.
With these new songs, there’s a some genuine exploration by Tyler and company. They’ve been a bit unfairly pigeonholed as this partying rock and roll band that only plays hot and fast. Rock life style at 110%. The excess of rock music. That’s simply not the case. They’re not interested in trying to recreate “Gypsy Woman”–and not even entertaining the idea.
Take a listen the laid back country groove “Goin’ Down To The City,” the Creedence Clearwater Revivalesque Bayou lick “She’s a Woman,” or the gospel boogie of “I Am A Pilgim” and you’ll see Tyler’s been getting real rootsy as of late. It’s a lot of rediscovery–in both new ground and going back to that well of inspiration that got him playing to begin with.
Possibly the best example is the version of “Walk On By (Hobo Blues)” down below. It’s an acoustic folkier take that they did aptly-titled “Hotel Session” one night while out on the road. It’s refreshing to see something so down to earth from a band. Obviously JTNL have fun playing shows in front of rowdy crowds out on the road, but there’s something magical captured there. They’re playing in the wee hours of the morning surrounded by empty and half-full cans of the champagne of beers and not doing it because they’re made to or anything. They’re doing it just for the hell of it. Why not?
I’m sure there’s something about him moving out to L.A. and trading his long locks of hair for a rockabilly slick cut that’s some kind of metaphor for being reborn and rejuvenated out on Pacific time. But when it comes down to it, Tyler’s always had a drive.
We’ve all been anticipating and Jonesing for something from Tyler. Now’s the time the flood gates are finally opening. Get ready.
We caught up with Tyler earlier this week. Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights are headlining Smokey’s True to Texas Music Fest on Saturday, May 3 at Cactus Courtyard. They’re being joined by Austin’s Wheeler Brothers and Lubbock’s No Dry County and the Randall King Band. For more information on Smokey’s click here. Watch/listen to “Walk On By (Hobo Blues)” below.
New Slang: You were in Dallas late last week. How many songs did you end up working on?
Jonathan Tyler: Yeah. I was up in Denton. I cut five songs. I didn’t get them completed, but I got the drums, the bass, and guitar. I got everything but the vocals. I’m still not sure exactly where I’m going to do those. Maybe here in L.A. And we may do another five songs. I still don’t know if I’m going to do a full-length or push out an EP.
NS: When you’re in there recording, how long are you working? How long are these days?
JT: These past days, we were working from about 10 in the morning until about 10 at night. About 12 hours. We’ll take short breaks during the day, but it’s really working through and getting out as much of the time as possible. As far as recording and taking breaks, but I’ve gotten to where I do it all the time. I’m always recording somewhere and in some way. The sessions just kind of extend on. But this last week, it was definitely with a specific release in mind where a lot of the other sessions, I’m just recording to try things out and experiment with different formulas–different players, engineers, studios. I’ve just been trying a lot out. Really trying to figure out what I’ve wanted to do and now we’re doing that.
NS: Over the last couple months, you’ve been putting out a couple free downloads. They’re also all on this Bootleg Volume I where there’s only 200 of them made. Why 200?
JT: Well, now I’ve got gotten off my record deal with Atlantic. The last three years, I’ve been ready to release music and they never released anything for me. They were just waiting to hear something that they wanted and that they never got I guess. So the whole time I wasn’t able to release anything. Now that I’m off, I’m going to be releasing a constant stream of music. And I think going back to a day and age where bands would cut and release singles. You know, like when The Beatles first came out, they would be releasing one song at a time. Then over a certain time, they’d compile those songs for a record. They’d sell the singles first. What I’m wanting to do is to release music without it having to be a full-length album with 10 songs on it. I think there’s a lot of creative ways to put out music. Some of them are going to be more commercial than others. Some are going to naturally be more for the avid fan that wants to have everything.
NS: Yeah. This collection, the name just hints that there’s going to be more than one volume. I think that’ll be a cool little series.
JT: Yeah, that’s the idea. The idea is to start releasing some cool collectible things. Some maybe rare things that maybe not everyone will want, but there will be certain people who do care about it. And just being the creator, I think putting things out like this makes it more fun for me as well.
NS: One of the songs on Volume 1, “It’s A Miracle,” I thought it strangely had this Randy Newman kind of vibe to it. When did you write that song?
JT: Oh yeah. I guess during that period of time, I had just been hanging around Ray Wylie Hubbard. We’d been hanging out and writing. Go get some coffee and talk about music. One day, I was at his cabin and he had shown me this old school fingerpicking pattern that I guess somebody had shown him back in the day. I never really had experimented with the fingerpicking stuff much before and that kind of just opened my mind a little bit to playing the guitar fingerpicking style. So after that, I started digging more into it. I got into this guy named Pink Anderson. He has this song called “Every Day In The Week Blues” and I learned how to play it. It just had all these gospel chord changes in it. Some really kind of cool musical turnaround things. I guess after learning a lot about that kind of music, I wrote that song. I wrote it and then was showing Chase [McGillis, bass player], and we sat down and played with it a little more. We finished it out and it was this quick, just having fun, kind of a thing. At the time, we were set up at my old house in Lewisville. We were recording, basically with a small Pro Tools set up. Like four microphones, no pre-amps, all digital, Macintosh program to do this thing. Really low-budget. We were recording mainly to get some demos together. We recorded that. It was live and it ended up sounding really good. It was at the point too when Atlantic wasn’t letting us release anything, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking that at some point, it had to go out. I didn’t necessarily think we needed to re-record it in a better setting where we were maybe using analog gear or anything. I thought the recording was really lo-fi, but it was good enough and cool enough that people would dig it. That’s where it came from. I’m pretty happy with it.
NS: Yeah. Definitely. Speaking of Ray Wylie Hubbard, I just spoke with him this afternoon. He’s playing over in Levelland next weekend. Every time I’ve spoken with him, I walk away thinking it’s my favorite interview. He’s just filled with great stories and quotes.
JT: Yeah, he is.
NS: Listening to your newer material, it really feels and sounds like you’re exploring new ground. You’re going out and discovering new things and ideas that you want to do and try out. Wanting to expand. Is there a certain instrument or style of music that you’re really wanting to experiment in that you’ve just not found the right song for yet?
JT: Yeah. There’s always new things to try. New territories to reach. I’m definitely doing that. Definitely experimenting with different things. But I don’t know, there’s not really ever a clear-cut path. You just go from one inspiration to another and try to stay inspired by whatever I’m listening to, or reading, or thinking about. You just try and keep that creative spark and follow that. I can’t really define where that comes from. It’s just random things. Like with Ray Wylie showing you a little lick and sparks a week of playing the same thing over and over. It just organically happens.
NS: Hypothetical question. Think of one of the people you’d really consider an influence on you musically. Would rather have co-written a song with that person or just been able to watch that person create something themselves and “take notes?”
JT: Hmm…I don’t know. Like I co-wrote a song with Ray Wylie and it’s fun. It’s basically different with every person. Everyone has a different way of getting their music out. Some have a really complicated process. Some have a really basic process. Either way, I think I could learn from the experience. Writing is just a mystery. I’m sure you’ve had times where you write something because you have a deadline and I’m sure other times you do it because you’re inspired to write. There’s a difference between the final products of both of those things. When writing anything, you’ve got to experience it to learn. The inspiration just comes naturally. The combination of being disciplined with your writing and channeling the inspiration, that’s kind of the trick. When you’re writing with your idol–I love the way Ray Wylie writes–and when we wrote our song, I didn’t really have to do very much at all. We had hung out and I had this guitar riff that I had been playing for years. I had it in the back of my mind. I’ll do that. I’ll play a lick, but won’t write a song around it, but I’ll still have it. Then at the right time, I’ll bring that lick back up for whatever reason. That was one of those kind of things. Ray and I were hanging out, I showed him the guitar lick, and he said, “Let’s write a song around it.” We talked about what we were going to write about and started maybe the first four lines of it. Then I left, and maybe three days later, he sent me the entire song. It was so good, I was like, “I’m not going to change any of these lyrics at all [laughs].” You typically, when writing with someone, you go back and tell them maybe we should change this line or something. But with Ray, I really kind of kickstarted it and gave it a musical direction in a way and he wrote all these brilliant lyrics. I could have easily gone and said that we should make some changes so I could have more of a lyric input on it, but he wrote something so good, it wouldn’t have been cool had I changed it. It’s one of those things though, if we wrote something again, it’d be a totally different thing. I think if you have too much of a formula, it can start to sound like you have a formula.