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A Dirty Dozen with MATT EASTON from THE JENNY THING – May 2021

 

According to a recent press release: “The Jenny Thing came together on the Berkeley campus of the University of California in 1991 when singer/guitarist Matt Easton met guitarist Shyam Rao. Matt and drummer Mike Phillips had grown up together, and both had been friends with bass player Ehren Becker since junior high. That first album, Me, was recorded shortly after the band played their first live shows. Its semi-acoustic sound is emotionally raw, with a style balanced between pop and youthful experimentation. It became the best-selling independent album of the year at Berkeley’s Rasputin Records.” We get the singer / guitarist to discuss new music, influences, and more…

1. Tell us a little about your latest release.  What might a fan or listener not grab the first or second time they listen through?  Are there any hidden nuggets you put in the material or that only diehard fans might find?

American Canyon is our fourth album. It’s high-tech, hand-made, and romantic. Sonically, it’s intense and sometimes trashy; lyrically, it’s writerly and disciplined with a set of images and themes that appear across different songs. Meanwhile, though the songs are often wistful, there’s frequently an undercurrent of violence. A fan might notice that the guitar line from “Paper Angel” quotes one of our own songs (“Spin” from Closer and Closer to Less)  And as you listen more, you’ll start to notice that more of the instruments on the record are played live than might have been assumed at first.

2. What got you into music, and can you tell us about the moment you realized you wanted to be a musician?

I was lucky to have a lot of support from my family to do music when I was young, so basically, I got to grow up super musical. I was playing piano from a young age and singing in choirs at church and school. And after that I played piano, clarinet, or percussion in like every school band that was on offer. But as for going off the deep end into pop music, it was probably videotaping myself lip-synching to Duran Duran or Hall & Oates 45’s that clinched it.

3. Building on that, is there a specific song, album, performer, or live show that guided your musical taste?

The songs I was pretty obsessed with as a kid were radio hits by the Police, or Tears for Fears, or even the Thompson Twins.  And frankly, those all still do it for me.  And then gradually I got more into post-punk and classic rock. And this is probably not immediately detectable in the final product, but kind of inspiring to me in the writing process: modern musicals mean a lot to me. When I’m writing words and melodies for emotional pivots within bigger contexts, I often have stuff like Les Misérables, Phantom Of The Opera, or Miss Saigon in the back of my mind. There’s something about the way those shows kind of slow down time and express the yearning of our hearts, often within a brutal world, that really does it for me. In some ways, I’m not much different than the kid I was in the 80s: At the piano in jazz band rehearsal, wearing a Les Mis T-shirt. And then cueing up “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me” or “Book of Love” on my Walkman, and trying to catch a bus to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

4. Who would be your main five musical influences?

For the American Canyon album, New Order and Peter Gabriel were some of the touchstones. For the guitars, the compact tones Shyam and I used and the more economical parts we played probably owe something to INXS. Vocally, I tried to address each song as having its own psychology.  So sometimes I’d be pulling toward Bowie or Iggy Pop, and then sometimes I’d be trying to channel a little bit of Lady Gaga or Annie Lennox. And usually I was just me, but in a specific state of mind.

5. If you could call in any one collaborator to do a song with, who would it be, and why?

Honestly, I’d just want to have something to offer, and I’d want to be surprised by the outcome.  So like anyone with a unique or odd musical identity, famous or not, who could use a fresh take, or a new start would be my kind of thing.  But if I want to just imagine an amazing couple of days writing and recording a song?  How about Howard Jones!  He just oozes music and positivity.

6. How would you describe your music to someone who’d never listened to you before? What is the one comparison a reviewer or fan has made that made you cringe or you disagreed with?

Deconstructed, semi-electronic indie rock with a singer-songwriter sensibility, and a love for the 80’s. As a singer, I’ve been compared a lot to Elvis Costello—like from the first time I sang with a band, right up until last week—and I’ve not really understood it. I certainly don’t think I could imitate him on purpose. Maybe we have the same sinuses or something…

7. When your band is hanging out together, who cooks, who gets the drinks in, and who is first to crack out the acoustic guitars for a singalong?

Let’s see. I’m going to say that Mike would bake something delicious for us, and Shyam would definitely be behind the bar, mixing drinks. And then it would be me and Ehren passing out the guitars! That’s not just plausible—that’s pretty spot-on.

8. When was the last time you were starstruck and who was it?

About five years ago I was incredibly fortunate to be able to go to 30 Rock and see a Tonight Show taping, and the guests were Barack Obama and Madonna. And of course, Jimmy Fallon was there, too. But it was like: How much more iconic could this get? And there are only a couple hundred seats in that narrow little studio. It was incredibly difficult to take it all it; like it took conscious work to absorb it. I both remember it vividly, and it’s almost as though it didn’t happen.

9. What is the best part of being a musician? If you could no longer be a musician for whatever reason, what would be your dream job?

The best part of being a musician is making something new and having it surprise you. If I could pick a dream job, it would be to design whatever would be the next version of either the Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion rides at Disneyland.

10. What is one question you have always wanted an interviewer to ask – and what is the answer? Conversely, what question are you tired of answering?

I always love talking about creative processes and disciplines and like being a maker and being a fan. Finding the overlaps and divergences in experience. So, I always love a question about music making as it relates to visual art, writing, film—and particularly if it connects back to the interviewer and what that person does and what they make, and what they bring. And my answer will almost invariably be along the lines of: “I know, right?! That’s fascinating. Me, too! Oh—let’s get to work, get weird, and never give up.”  And that’s what we all need to hear. The question we used to get constantly was: “How did the band get its name?”

11. Looking back over your career, is there a single moment or situation you feel was a misstep or you would like to have a “do over,” even if it didn’t change your current situation?

You know, I’m going to give you like a “non-mistake mistake.”  We performed on Star Search during our first stint as a band, and honestly, we were unsure about doing it—before, during, and after.  It wasn’t really on brand or relevant to our audience or goals, it was just… it was big, and it was there. But with enough perspective, I’ve come to see it as a ceremony of sorts, almost the end of our childhoods or something. And as much as doing the show was a little random, it was also wonderfully surreal, slightly absurd, and unforgettable. And we got to meet Martha Quinn, and I wrote a song about that—a souvenir. And the band simply had a great time together on that trip.

12. If you could magically go back in time and be a part of the recording sessions for any one record in history, which would you choose – and what does that record mean to you?

I’d be surprised if you haven’t gotten this one before, but as a session to observe, I’d have to choose Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and there’s always more to be found in it. What does it mean to me? Well, it feels personal to my childhood while also being a mega artifact that’s shared with a significant portion of the planet. It’s the Beatles’ individual fingerprints, and the way they fit together. And it’s the blueprint for every group since that writes for itself and tries to make its own way. And Sgt. Pepper is really everything we ever needed to know about pop music recording, all in one place. It’s like the Ten Commandments. Just imagine being a fly on the wall with everybody smoking indoors and half of them wearing white lab coats. George Martin, Geoff Emerick, and the lads are all at work… and “A Day in the Life” emerges from the mist. Now, if I were to join in and play, I’d pick a session at Stax with Otis Redding or Carla Thomas in the mid-60s, with Booker T., Cropper, and that band. Maybe add a hand on piano or play second guitar or sing harmonies. I love Memphis, and as a person of color I love the ensemble triumph of the integrated and truly peerless Stax band.

BONUS QUESTION – Due to the current world situation with COVID-19 / quarantine / shelter in place, what have you discovered you miss the most from your life before the pandemic struck?

I’ve weathered COVID and sheltering in place quite well, and I feel very fortunate. But what do I miss the most? Probably the real simple pleasures like going to the movies or sitting in a restaurant.

THE JENNY THING LINKS:

OFFICIAL SITE

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Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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