Jukebox the Ghost Singer-Pianist Ben Thornewill Got into a New York State of Mind for the Band's Latest Album

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click to enlarge Jukebox the Ghost Singer-Pianist Ben Thornewill Got into a New York State of Mind for the Band's Latest Album
Eric Ryan Anderson
The guys in the indie pop band Jukebox the Ghost met while they were in college at George Washington University. Drummer Jesse Kristin and singer-pianist Ben Thornewill lived next to each other in the dorms freshman year and started playing together. Their sophomore year, they recruited guitarist Tommy Siegel, and the band was born.

“We were all 19 and started playing together, and we just kept on going,” explains Thornewill via phone as he was driving through the desert on the way to a gig outside of Phoenix. “They took a much better approach to school. Tommy was a journalist and Jesse was a bio major. It started as a fun thing. Slowly things started to grow and develop.”

Thornewill, who says he mostly listens to classical music and jazz and has a “soft spot for super pop music,” admits band members didn’t share the same musical tastes — how else to explain the Captain Beefheart reference in the band’s name and the group’s early cover of Ace of Base’s “Beautiful Life”? 

“We’d agree on occasional things,” Thornewill says. “That’s still the way it is. We all have albums we agree are good albums, but I doubt all three of us are ever listening to the same thing as the same time."

The guys recorded their first album, 2008’s Let Live & Let Ghosts, while on winter break. The circumstances weren’t ideal.

“It was rough,” says Thornewill. “It was the last two weeks of our winter break. We slept on the floor Tommy’s sister’s floor. We did the record in eight days and had no money. We just did it because we knew we had to do it. After that, we try to give ourselves enough time and always have a place to sleep.”

Back in 2014, the band signed with Cherrytree Records and hit the road in early 2015 for a North American tour that became the subject of the new short documentary film “Long Way Home.” The current tour supports Jukebox the Ghost (Cherrytree Deluxe Edition), a re-release of their self-titled LP that comes with a bonus disc of Thornewill’s “reimagining” of the songs as improvised piano arrangements.

“In re-releasing the album, we wanted to do something different,” says Thornewill. “I had the idea — and the label was surprisingly supportive — to do slightly abstract classical versions of the songs on the album. I sat at the piano and made some shit up, and it ended up on the album. It’s something I love doing and do a lot on my own. I just sit down and play classical music. I like to use my foundation in classical training. It’s not something I get to exercise very often. Sometimes at the show, I’ll do an extended improvised introduction to a song. But at the end of the day we play pop and rock, and rock music and that doesn’t go hand in hand with lofty classical music.”

The guys cut the album over the course of several months, working with producer Andrew Dawson (.fun, Kanye West) and producer Dan Romer (Ingrid Michaelson, the Woes).

“It’s the longest we ever spent on an album,” says Thornewill. “It was probably a six months process from beginning to end. Making an album is both incredibly rewarding and exhausting, meticulous work. People who don’t know figure the album is 40 minutes long and you do it in a day. No, we spent eight hours on three seconds of a drum part. That’s just how it goes. Sometimes, it flows and you get a song done and some days you labor over the smallest bits.”

A song characterized by its perky piano/synthesizer riff and choir-like vocals, “The Great Unknown” poses the question about the afterlife. It’s one of the album’s standout tracks.

“I wrote that with one of my best friends, a guy named Greg Holden, who’s out with us on part of this tour,” says Thornewill. “It was the first time we’ve written together and we struck a chord and struck a vibe. The song almost wrote itself. It could be about death or it could be about adventures or self-exploration. The place where we wrote it was the tenth floor of a Brooklyn warehouse that overlooks Manhattan. We were just looking at that cityscape and walking through it and thinking about the myriad of possibilities of living in a city like that. That’s what I think of when I think about us writing that song. The thing about New York is that you find your neighborhood and your pocket and that’s where you tend to stay. You go two miles in any direction and the demographic changes and the neighborhood changes and it’s an entirely other world. I’m from Louisville so New York will always be a foreign and exotic place to me.”

The vocal performance on the shimmering ballad “When the Nights Get Long” is particularly strong as Thornewill tenderly sings, “I wanna write you a letter/I wanna write you a song.”

“A lot of it for me is the contrast between the verse and the chorus,” says Thornewill. “There are strong vocals and shouting and then the super-intimate close part. I think the piano textures inform how I sang it. When we’re making a record, we’re always thinking about how to make it great and how it will work live. That’s a great moment live.”

The band has started writing songs for the next album, and Thornewill says with such a heavy touring schedule, it's become increasingly important to strike a balance between touring and recording.

“We’re playing a new song on this tour and testing the waters with that and have begun the process of writing and I’m sure we’ll do that for the next year as we try to piece it together,” he says. “Touring is tough and there’s no avoiding it. We find it difficult but highly rewarding. It’s how we survived all these years and how we’ve maintained our fan-base and made new fans.”

Jukebox the Ghost, Mainland, Polars, 8 p.m. Friday, March 4, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $16 ADV, $18 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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