Back in July when REBEAT was just a newborn blogazine, we told you about the Jigsaw Seen’s latest album, Old Man Reverb. The album has seen a lot of praise for its inventiveness, exceptional production, and overall catchy compositions. But while reviews of Old Man Reverb have generally examined individual tracks, exalting them for their own merits (and I admit my own guilt in doing this), the concept of the album was overlooked — or, more accurately, few attempted to even search for a concept within the album.
This past November, I caught up with TJS lead guitarist Jonathan Lea while he and fellow bandmate Tom Currier (bassist) backed Kink Dave Davies on tour in the US. Sitting down before the first of two City Winery shows in New York City, we discussed the album, track by track, to piece together the Old Man Reverb concept. Along the way, we conversed about influences, the music industry, and the idea behind Old Man Reverb’s cover art.
REBEAT: I’m going to try one more shot at what the album is about. I’ve been listening to it more. I don’t know that I can come up with an exact concept, but the idea of Old Man Reverb is reflection and looking back on your life at the end.
JONATHAN LEA: The concept is a lifetime in show business. We were really inspired by this album called S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things, and that’s a concept album, but that concept is just a mundane life where nothing happens. S.F. Sorrow’s born and at the end he’s the loneliest person until he dies. Ours is very similar, but it’s a lifetime in show business and all the elements you encounter during that lifetime. So that’s the concept. A couple people thought it was kind of show business-y or something, but they didn’t really get it.
They got that it ties in to it.
So “Let There Be Reverb,” that’s the first. And that has a lot of Phil Spector references, so we used him as the model for Old Man Reverb, but it could be any male in the entertainment profession.
And then you’ve got “Idiots With Guitars.”
Idiots with guitars is dealing with having perseverance and all the distractions and the difficulties you encounter and how you have to be almost stupid to even want to try to do this. There has to be something. The next song is “Die Laughing,” which kind of represents all the obstacles health-wise: drinking, drugs, you know. It’s really about AIDS, we used that as a metaphor for all those elements.
It’s ironic you mentioned that, because today [November 24th] is the anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death.
Oh right, I saw that [online]. So that kind of represents AIDS being the extreme with everything that can happen to you with the party lifestyle. Now what’s after that? “Understand.” “Understand” is just trying to get people to understand what you’re doing.
I also look at it as just trying to find human connection.
Right. All the songs work on their own on a personal level.
Like a song like “We Women,” which you’ve had out before, it was put into the album but it works.
All of these songs existed. “Abide” is 25 years old. Most of them are about 20 years old, but we never recorded them for an album, and we always liked them, so when we were doing this, that fit the concept too [of] Old Man Reverb.
So you’re going back on your own career.
Right, we’re reflecting on our lifetime in show business or what seems like a lifetime. I mean, everything we do is big concept. We really dig this stuff out. [laughs] Maybe we just have too much free time on our hands, I don’t know. So we went through all of Dennis [Davison]’s (singer, songwriter, and guitarist of TJS) old songs that we used to play and we found nine that really kind of made a story. We had all of them except “Let There Be Reverb,” that’s new. He wrote that to fit the title. Old Man Reverb was a title I had for probably 10 or 15 years. We were recording one day, and Dennis said, “Can you add some old timey reverb?” or something, and I said, “Old man reverb?” And we knew right then that we were going to use that for something.
Then we took these nine songs and Dennis wrote “Let There Be Reverb,” and we formed this story arc. All the songs work on their own. So “Understand” is just trying to get the general public to understand what it is you do. I mean, it took us so long.
Which is basically what this interview is about, to get people to understand what the idea is.
Yeah. I posted today [on Facebook] that we used to play the song “Abide” 25 years ago. You should have seen people. I mean, spaghetti western and all that kind of stuff was just so far removed from pop culture, whereas now, with the Johnny Cash movie [Walk the Line], young people are open to all kinds of cool things, those kind of guitars. Whereas in the ’80s, forget it. No one got it. So we would play that song and we loved it, we loved the riff, but people would just stare at us.
So the time is right. It took 25 years to catch up with that. “We Women,” you know, it’s Old Man Reverb, so all men in show business, myself included, have women that are our support and are really helpful.
And even if you’re looking at the album as an old rock star looking back on his life, it could be about women being like, “Hey, we exist in this field too, and now we’re going to tell you our side.”
Yeah. We wanted to bring women into it so that’s why we re-recorded it.
I really love that song, it’s empowering. It gives my feminist sensibilities some power.
We record that song every 10 years. Ten years ago we did the sitar version that was a single, and 10 years before that we did a version that’s very similar to the one that came out on Old Man Reverb, but it’s a little faster.
I had noticed that the new version was much quicker than the one I had downloaded on iTunes before Old Man Reverb came out. I like that it gives it a different sense power but doesn’t change the meaning.
The arrangement that’s on Old Man Reverb, that’s the original way we did it. I guess we got tired of doing it that way, so 10 years ago we thought that would make a good single, and for whatever reason we came up with the idea of doing it on the electric sitar and making it a little more laid back and we liked it that way.
Do you guys like to play around with revisiting old sounds and songs?
Oh yeah. We like taking all kinds of weird sounds, and we’ll try things out every which way. We’re really open to anything.
I’m trying to remember one of the tracks off Old Man Reverb, I can’t remember which one, maybe it was “Hercules and Sylvia,” it had some kind riff or sound that was similar to something off Bananas Fosters, I can’t remember exactly what.
“Madame Whirligig” and “Hercules and Sylvia” used to be one song; we separated them for this, but we originally were going to record them for Bananas Foster, and we didn’t. We made a demo and that’s as far as we got. It was like “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” it was “Madame Whirligig/Hercules and Sylvia.” So we thought, let’s divide them up. “Madame Whirligig” used to be in the middle of “Hercules and Sylvia” when it goes to that string break.
Almost like “A Day in The Life.”
Exactly, so we separated them, took it out and came up with a string arrangement for the middle. “Madame Whirligig” represents kind of the silly things you have to do as a performer like wear costumes and monkey suits. Madame Whirligig is a turtle that Dennis saw perform that didn’t have any back legs, so they put roller skates [on it] or something and it dragged itself around. So he used that as a metaphor for what performers have to go through. “Hercules and Sylvia” is similar. It’s two gorillas he saw in a zoo, so that’s a metaphor for being imprisoned on stage. [laughs] I don’t know why we thought people would just figure this all out.
When I was originally listening to it, I was looking at the notes that came with the [review copy of the] album and I’m like, “Okay, this is about gorillas,” but the notes just tell you about each individual track, and I was like, “How does this fit in exactly?”
I guess we just thought people…I don’t know. We lived through these albums like Tommy, where we knew it was a concept album and we just made all the songs fit, so we just thought people would do that.
Well, recently I started to figure out little bits about it, but I was still not entirely sure why this particular song fit into the concept.
Right, so that’s being imprisoned onstage, with people focused on you whether you want it or not, you know the limelight or whatever you want to call it.
Almost the feeling of no escape.
Right, like two gorillas in a zoo. “Your Mind is Like Mine” is next. That’s when you finally get people, which we did with Bananas Foster. People finally got it. It took 20 years. Everyone in LA in a band copies something that was popular six months to a year ago. So when you’re doing something where you’re taking all these elements and mixing them together, they just didn’t get it. But now, once Bananas Foster came out, we had so many people tell us, “Yeah, I always used to wonder what you guys are doing, but now I get it.” That was always the phrase we heard when we ran into someone we hadn’t seen in 10 years: “Hey, now I get you guys.” People finally got it.
I know in recent years with my generation or younger generations in general, that vinyl records have made a major resurgence, not just a lot of new bands pressing records, but people buying vintage records. I’m wondering if that has helped people understand better, because they’re exploring older music and they’re like, “Oh, I get it.”
I mean, I’m not crazy about these movies, but things like the Johnny Cash movie really made [younger people] aware of Johnny Cash, and even the Ray Charles [movie, Ray]. Younger people are much more open to music that’s 30 or 40 years old than my generation was when we were 20. That would have been like listening to Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman, and nobody did that.
We were up to “Your Mind is Like Mine.” That’s just about getting an audience, getting a group of people, but it works as an individual song on a one-on-one basis. But as a metaphor it means when people come together and you’re finally accepted and have people who get what you do. And then comes the downslide. “Abide” is when a lot of people get to that level, they just kind of accept it or conform and just stick to what they do. Like the Rolling Stones, as much as I love them, they just kind of do the same thing. They’ve found their place and that’s what they do. A lot of actors do that, and musicians. You know, they’re comfortable, so they accept it and just keep living it. They don’t really do anything different or push themselves.
And then “Grief Rehearsal” is basically writing your life out, waiting to die. As an individual song it’s about waiting for someone else to die. Just thinking that someone’s going to die every day until they finally do and then it doesn’t mean anything.
For me, when I listened to that song, I reflected back to when I saw you guys last year [May 2013]; I drove out to the show after my grandfather’s funeral that morning. A few days before, I had gotten a call from my parents telling me, “Your grandfather died,” but we had all pretty much expected it for a while, so I understood about anticipating that and it playing out.
Right, waking up everyday thinking, “Is this it for this person?” I mean, on a personal level I’ve thought that about Keith Richards every day for about 30 years.
I think the whole world has.
I mean I’m such a fan, but I think, is this it?
I feel that about pretty much all the bands I listen to, and I get upset whenever I hear that someone’s passed away, especially if it’s someone I never had a chance to see and I’m like, “Well –“
That’s it. “Grief Rehearsal” represents as part of the concept. So we have the reverb, death, everything in between. I mean there are elements like that in Bananas Foster, Winterland, and Gifted, but we never told — I mean, there’s a lot of interconnection and little things within the songs that connect, but some people do get them. Every once in a while we’ll get an email from somebody: “Hey, did you know that at the end of ‘David Hart’s Name of Song’ it’s saying ‘ringing bells of time,’ and then there’s an alarm clock that wakes you for ‘Melancholy Morning?,’” and I’m like [laughing], “Yeah! That’s intentional!”
I feel like I need to listen to every album again and try to piece everything together. [And since the interview, I listened to these albums almost obsessively. It’s a sickness.]
Another thing we did, not too many people know about this even though we credit it on the album. On “Cave Canem,” the dogs barking at the beginning, those are Brian Wilson’s dogs, and the reason we used them? Because the dogs were named Banana and Louie. But there’s a ton of stuff like that on all the albums. So I think that’s why a lot of times we’re kind of short changed because people really don’t invest the time to really listen and research and piece everything together. That’s okay. If people just want to put on the album and listen to them —
That’s the thing with any piece of music or any piece of art in general, whatever the artist intended, someone’s going to come up with some different interpretation or personal connection that might not have anything to do with it. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. But I think it’s important to understand what someone actually was trying to do.
Dennis and I grew up listening to Pink Floyd and even the later Beatles albums where there were all these kind of things that you could read into it and hook together, and it involved you. We like creating something that involves people. I mean, I can’t believe other people don’t. It just shocks me when I see some band put out an album and it’s got a picture of themselves on a piece of paper in a jewel case and that’s it, that’s all the creativity they put into it. And then every song’s about some girl they can’t obtain, or the same sound times 10, 10 songs. We actually got some criticism on this album for too much variety and we couldn’t believe it. I mean, what’s the White Album, what’s Hunky Dory?
I love variety. I mean any Queen album, they explored so many different styles.
It’s unbelievable. I don’t really know that bands can do that anymore.
Apparently not if they’re criticizing you for it.
What can you do? We just try to do everything good. We try to do everything the best we can, we record at the best studios we can, we mastered at Abbey Road, and packaging I really put a lot of time in. I don’t tell too many people this, but sometimes I’ll have a concept for the album cover and I’ll sketch it out and I’ll just stare at it for like three hours, almost meditate it. And that’s where I come up with it, something will just click.
Are you guys working on a new album right now?
No, we’re working on a single. We’re gonna release a single. I mean, we are working on a new album, but we’re cranking out a single really quick. The album probably won’t be coming out until 2016. But we’ve started on it, the bare bones. There’s two songs that we’re actually finishing.
Do you already have some kind of concept for it? Or are you just going to make songs and maybe figure it out later?
For the next album, I actually have a book full of album titles, so I’ll just find one that I think fits that group of songs the best, or maybe one that fits the group of songs and I have some kind of concept or gimmick for. I have a whole backlog of gimmicks for album covers that we can still do. But the two tracks, so we’re going to put out two new ones probably in the spring or summer. And we might do a physical release of Discriminating Completist and put the two new songs on that. Every album, we get new people who come on board, but they haven’t heard “My Name Is Tom” and “Celebrity Interview,” songs that we used to do 20 years ago that were popular and got a lot of radio play. It’s good I guess, and it buys us a little time.
Are you guys still thinking of doing some kind of tour?
We definitely want to, but we just don’t want to go to, you know, Kansas City and play at some rock club. Just like the albums, we want the live thing to be something different. Dennis and I have tons of ideas, but so far every one that we’ve tried to do hasn’t worked out, but there’s one that’s looking pretty good, and it’s pretty cool.
We do want to do shows, and we kind of have to in 2015. We have one idea that’s looking pretty good, it will be great. It would be us doing our songs and doing some other songs that would be a dream come true… [We could] maybe do a tour with another band we like or something. We’ll see how it goes; we’re working on it. We just don’t want to do something normal. And it’s weird, other people we know in bands and in the business can’t understand that. It’s just like our record covers, they’re like, “Why do you do that? Why don’t you just put out a normal record cover?”
“Why isn’t it just a picture of the four of you?”
“Why not just is some CD box?” And I have to tell them, “Then you don’t get us.”
With Old Man Reverb, with the vinyl, I love the CD attached to it so it’s like a dial.
That’s actually a Fender silver-faced amp. Fender made these amps in the late ’60s. If you see one, that’s actually a photograph of the amp, everything with the blue text, the silver. In the early ’60s, Fender made these amps called black-faced amps, so when I originally thought of the idea it was going to be black and white. But I was somewhere and I saw some reflective silver paper, and it just clicked, “Oh, Fender made silver-faced amps, we’ve got to print it on silver foil,” so that’s how that came about. And I had the idea to use the CD as the knob on the front at least 10 years ago. I’ve been sitting on it, waiting to use it, waiting to spring.
Already own Old Man Reverb? Tell us your favorite track in the comments!
(Cover photo by Mark Wheaton. L-R: Teddy Freese, Dennis Davison, Jonathan Lea, Tom Currier.)