Alternative band Jukebox the Ghost will play at House of Blues Friday, April 20. The Daily Campus talked with lead singer and pianist Ben Thornewill about the band’s history, the newest record and the band’s love for Freddie Mercury.
Daily Campus: You released your album a couple of days ago, so that must feel pretty good.
Ben Thornewill: It’s awesome. It’s a really great feeling.
DC: What was your process going through your newest record?
BT: It took a long time to make this record — it was almost three years between studio releases, which is longer than we usually like to take. But, one of the big things we brought to this record was, I guess, more adventurous songwriting and incorporating a lot of Queen influence — that was a big part of it. We’ve done this show for the last few years called ‘HallowQueen,’ and we do a set of our music and get into costume and character and do a set as Queen, and it’s so much fun and we learned a lot from it. When we were making this record, we were like, “Let’s just sorta go for it. Let’s put in the guitar solo, let’s do a bunch of vocal stacked harmonies, let’s write pop songs that can also be a little strange and subversive.”
DC: How does the songwriting process go for you guys?
BT: It’s always different. There’s two songwriters, so I write and Tom may write, and sometimes we bring the song to the table and it’s half constructed. Sometimes we bring it the table and it’s finished. So, a lot of the band’s process when we get going is getting into the studio and trying to make the song sound like us. Try to make it sound unique, try to find a cool way to use harmonies or use our instruments, or you know, mess with the way the drums sound. You sort of never know how it’s gonna play out. But, from a songwriting perspective, I think every song has its own path. Sometimes you can write an entire song in an hour and it’s perfect, and sometimes it takes weeks.
DC: What kind of different things did you do for this album?
BT: Some of the cool stuff that we did — a couple of times on the record, I recorded piano with somebody inside the piano putting their hand on the piano strings, which creates this weird plunking, plucky sound. It’s on the tune “Boring,” it’s also on “Time and I.” “Jumpstart,” the first track on the record, has over 120 vocals on it of me, just all of my vocals stacked on top of each other time and time and time again. Those are two notable, messing with the conventional uses of an instrument.
DC: I’ve always been impressed on how musicians figure out that kind of sound. It must have taken a lot of thinking about it and creating new sounds.
BT: Yeah, you know, when you spend a lot of time with an instrument, you sort of learn the different things you can do with it. With pianos, there’s not a lot, because pianos don’t get re-amped very often. So, the only thing you can do is mess with the strings. You can put tacks on it and then it’s a tack piano and it has an old-timey sound. Sometimes I’ll lay paper towels on the strings and that gives it this weird papery sound. And it’s fun! You get into the studio and you’re trying to make things that don’t sound like anything else. A lot of pianos have been recorded, but not a lot of pianos have been recorded with people’s hands on them.
DC:You’re starting your tour in a couple of days. What are you most excited about for it?
BT: This is our fifth record, and you know we’ve toured our faces off on all of them. It’s a challenge for us, figuring out how to take those tracks with 30, 40, 100 vocals and translate that and make that happen on stage with an energy and excitement that makes it fun.
DC: Has music always been a part of your life?
BT: Virtually for as long as I can remember. I started playing piano when I was six and studied classical all the way, you know, and I’m still playing somehow. My dad was a songwriter and classical guitarist, so my earliest earliest memories is listening to him playing his guitar and keeping it as part of my identity as a person on Earth.
DC: Were there any musical influences that your parents brought to the table?
BT: It’s funny because the two things in my house were strange. My mom never really did like music, so we weren’t the sort of family that had music on in the house; there was never background music in the house. If you wanted to hear music, you played it. So, it’d be my dad playing the guitar or me playing the piano. My dad introduced me to classic rock when I was in middle school, and that was it. Even still, I don’t listen to a lot of music, and I didn’t really then either. It was the music in front of me; it was the Chopin, it was the Beethoven and that sort of stuff.
DC: You talked about this at the beginning of how Queen is one of your biggest influences. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Why is that band so important to you guys?
BT: It’s sort of grown in importance. Early on we got compared to them a lot just by the nature of piano and big vocals and pop songs, etc. But to me, it’s the use of his voice, the adventurousness of the arrangements, the rock and the guitar solos, the harmonies and that they were weird. And they got away with being weird. And it’s f***ing awesome. You can have these crazy-a** songs that do a thousand different things and they’re iconic, classic, forever songs. And it’s something to aspire to.
DC: What got the ball rolling for you guys in the early stages of the band?
BT: We all met in college and just started playing in the way that college kids play together. I knew that I wanted to start a band when I got to college, and the first guys I played with were Tommy and Jesse. The thing that got the ball rolling was that we were playing and doing the shows and then right towards the end of our senior year, people started coming to shows that weren’t our friends. We had always hoped that we could do it, we wanted to do it, but those early signs of ‘Oh wait, there’s people we didn’t drag here listening to us. Maybe we should give this a try.’
DC: As a college student myself, I have a few friends that were in bands and they felt the same way.
BT: You know we were every college band. We were playing every benefit concert and like spring fling bullshit gig, or like casino night or friend’s living rooms in their tiny little dorms. We would do anything. That was how we figured out how to be a band.
DC: Was it scary at all to take the plunge from being the college band to trying to really make it?
BT: I don’t know if it was scary. It was probably foolish It’s a silly thing to attempt, you know? But luckily for us, we’ve had this very steady growth. Every year is a little bit better than the year before, so we’re always able to sort of look at the year ahead and say “Yeah, let’s keep doing this.” Even when we were seniors in college we were like, “You wanna do this?” Like, yeah! Jesse the drummer was pre-med and he was like, “I don’t wanna go to med school” and Tom was a journalism major, and we all just decided to give it a go.
DC: If you could give advice to an aspiring artist, what would it be?
BT: Work really hard. Always be writing, always be working. Learn how to record your own music and perform as often as possible.