Interviews: Jonathan Tyler

Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights. Photos by Landan Luna/New Slang.

Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights. Photos by Landan Luna/New Slang.

by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

Red circle. In bold. iPhone calendar alarmed. Mentally noted. Basically, whatever you have to do to remember when Jonathan Tyler & his revolving door of Northern Lights disciples are going to town, you do it. It’s just something that you kind of do. 

It’s been noted many times what a JTNL Blue Light experience is. In short–it’s rock n’ roll. It’s a stand-off between JTNL and the crowd to see who’ll break or back down first. Who’s getting amped more. Who’s going to do the crazier shit. It’s the old immovable object and an unstoppable force clashing in the front row.

The struggle to find common ground between Tyler and Atlantic Records (his previous recording label) has been documented for a while now. It’s why we haven’t had a JTNL record since Pardon Me in 2010. I mean, you’d have to be really naive to think Tyler didn’t want to release an album or two between then and now. 

It can be a pretty frustrating kind of situation to say the least. As an avid music fan, I’ve been anticipating a new album for a while. I can’t imagine how it’s been for Tyler. It can be strange to hear snippets of this and that, rumors of something new coming out, and conversations with Tyler and various Northern Light folks, yet never have any actual physical work of art that you can grasp and wrap your head around.

Thankfully, that’s all coming to an end pretty soon. Tyler’s upcoming album, Holy Smokes, is slated for a release in June. And by all means, we’ve waited four years for something–anything–these six months aren’t anything. 

Jonathan Tyler is playing at The Blue Light tonight (Saturday, Dec 13). Watch/Listen to Jonathan Tyler play “Disappear” Texas Music Scene from earlier this year.

New Slang: Did you hear about Bobby Keys passing away (We spoke the afternoon of Keys’ passing)?

Jonathan Tyler: Yeah. I did, man. It’s really sad, but a part of life. He’s one of the greats. He’s definitely going down in history.

NS: Yeah. I mean, he literally played with everybody–like just about every band who’s been relevant since the ’70s. To me, if you think about the people who are from this area, he has to be considered as a top two or three most influential musicians all-time. Most of the times, especially out here, you think of the folks who are most influential as singer-songwriters, but as far as overall artists and musicians go, he’s not less than top five.

JT: Oh yeah. He’s just the epitome of rock n’ roll saxophone. I don’t know if there’s anybody better. He’s on all the Stones stuff. Played with some of the Beatles guys. Just rock n’ roll, man. The guy. It’s sad, but it’s what’s going to be happening over the next few years. All those classic rock greats we grew up with, they’re going to be leaving us. It’s crazy to think about what’s going to happen to the music business. Most of the bands who fill up the massive arenas, they’re all classic rock artists. They’re not a lot of modern acts who can really do it. You know what I mean? There’s not a lot of newer bands who can fill out those huge arenas. When those people starting dying, I wonder what’s going to start happening to the touring world.

NS: Yeah. There’s definitely not a lot of gigantic rock n’ roll acts now. Even the big ones, it’s difficult to even imagine them in the same league. I guess we have Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam…

JT: Yeah and even then, those are from the ’90s. I’m sure bands like The Black Keys, Kings of Leon that are going to be able to do it. I guess there will be bands able to, but I don’t know. 

NS: Yeah. It’ll be strange. Did you ever have any Bobby Keys experiences or stories?

JT: There was one time where somebody in our camp became friends with somebody in his. He was kind of looking to do some shows as a side guy. I was interested in getting him out to play with me in Austin at Antone’s. We were talking about it, but he wanted a whole lot of money [laughs]. It was just an absurd amount for us–especially for three or four songs.

NS: [Laughs]. Yeah. He was wanting Rolling Stones money from JTNL. 

JT: Yeah. I mean, he’d definitely deserve it, but at the time, we weren’t making that much. But Chase (JTNL bass player Chase McGillis), he played with Bobby Keys one night in Nashville. He backed him up at a Bobby Keys show.

NS: So Holy Smokes. I guess I’ve seen a few different tentative release dates. 

JT: I’ve changed it up since I’ve kept changing the record. I’m pretty set on June. I’m going for June. The reason it’s been changing is because we keep working on it. It’s pretty much done. There’s too much music. I recorded 11 tracks and there’s a few that are really long so the music comes out to be about 50 minutes so it’s not going to fit on vinyl and I don’t want to do a double press. I really want to keep it down to one. So I’m thinking of cutting one or two songs from Holy Smokes, then recording another one and then putting those out on like a 10′ EP kind of thing for Record Store Day. I’m not 100% sure.

NS: Who’s on this record that no one would really know unless they were scouring over the liner notes? Any surprise name?

JT: Well, Nikki Lane and I did a duet. Ricky Ray Jackson is playing pedal steel. He plays in Phosphorescent. He played on that last The War on Drugs record. He’s also in this band called The Happen-Ins. I have a co-write with Ray Wylie Hubbard on the record. Matt Pence plays drums on it. Matt Pence of Centro-Matic and Justin Townes Earle. Those are probably the “big” names. Then of course, my guys.

NS: So this is probably way fucking off. But I’ll just throw it out there to hear what you have to say. Since you’ve started, people have been throwing out things like rock n’ roll savior. Jonathan Tyler is a classic rock guy in the purest way possible. He’s bringing back the giant ’70s rock god kind of music back. A lot of people have described JTNL as that kind of thing. To me though, it feels like you’re really more into the music that was like a level down from that. Like more country funk, psychedelic rock, cosmic bluesy kind of stuff. Is that more of what you’re being influenced by and interested in?

JT: I guess in a way. I think at the core–I’ll put it this way–basically this record is where I finally have the reigns to do what I want to do. So I’m trying to lay down the foundation of what I am as a songwriter. I’ve been trying do that. I tried with the last record, but I feel like it kind of got away. I lost creative control. It turned into something that I didn’t want it to. So this record, it feels like I’m getting the chance to say “here is the framework of what I’ve been trying to lay down.” I’d almost like for this to be the first record. I’d almost like if this was considered my first record. The two before, I like those, but this is the first one I’m walking away from going “this is what it’s supposed to be.” And now, I’m going to be able to do off shoots from this nucleus. More psychedelic. More free, open-ended type of arrangements. I needed one record that was “the core.” I didn’t feel like the last one was. It felt like it got away. I think when people hear this, it’s not going to sound crazy psychedelic or anything. I think it’s very singer-songwriter oriented. It’s very Americana at its’ core, but there’s definitely modern recording textures. It’s going to feel maybe a little fresh or modern, but it’s not really avant-garde.

NS: Yeah. I don’t why, but I have it in my head that this is going to be like this California country meets Texas blues rock record or something–like you’ve been spending your time in LA out in the desert around Joshua Tree and Palm Springs or something. Desert rock stuff. I don’t know [laughs].

JT: Sorta. I mean, I’ve been really trying to do this the entire time. I don’t think anything is that different. The difference though is just that I don’t have an editor or record label standing between myself and the public. That make sense?

NS: Oh definitely. It makes a lot of sense. 

JT: Yeah. So I’ve been trying to do this sound since the beginning. It’s just now that I can actually hit the target. Before, we were trying, but still trying to figure it out. We had a producer who was really heavy-handed. Record company telling us what photos to use. What video to put out. It was all very controlled. So now, whatever I want to put out, I can put out. I think people are going to end up getting the true nucleus of what we’re trying to do. I don’t think it’s going to be LA at all actually. It’s totally Texas. I’m not claiming LA. I just want to get that straight [laughs]. You know, my girlfriend and I, we were living out here, but we broke up and I was in the process of recording this record so I just stayed here. I don’t know how long I’m going to stay in California. I mean, once touring starts, I’ll be gone anyways.

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