July for Kings
by Andrew Ellis
To say July For Kings' experiences in the music industry so far have been something of a rollercoaster ride, would be an understatemenat.
After forming while still in high school, the band (Joe Hedges, vocals; Travis Delaney, guitars; Sam Dobrozsi, drums; T. Miller, cello, guitar; Jason Morgan, bass) quickly built up a strong reputation in their home town of Middleton, Ohio with their energetic live shows and two self-released albums.
In amongst all the hype surrounding the band, MCA recognized the immense talent the quartet possessed and signed them in 2000. Yet despite making one of the best modern rock albums of the past year in Swim, MCA and July For Kings parted company a few months ago.
Add the departure of Dobrozsi and Morgan from the band, and you would think things would be looking pretty bleak for July For Kings. But as lead vocalist Joe Hedges explains, the outlook for the band is anything but that, and in this revealing interview, he tells Andrew Ellis about the band's ups and downs, future plans and unswerving dedication to the rock and roll life.
Hi, Joe. For anyone not familiar with the band, give us a potted history of how the band got together and got to the point where you were courted by the major labels prior to recording Swim.
Travis and Sam were practically raised as brothers. I met them in the sixth grade, and we quickly became close friends. In high school, we set out be rock stars. Travis got a guitar for Christmas and Sam was playing drums in marching band. Since I couldn't play anything cool, I became the singer by default.
We slowly worked our way from garage band to local band, and eventually from local band to regional band with the release of a couple independent albums. After a couple of years of college, we received our first offer from Wind-Up records, later moving to MCA with our former A&R guy, Joel Mark.
I guess Swim is old news really, with you writing new stuff constantly, but I think it's a really exceptional album so I want to get under its skin a little. First, I've heard the early versions of a lot of the songs after hearing Swim and am interested to know why you opted for Blumpy, Ken Lewis, and Ben Grosse to produce the album.
We had actually been working with Ken since high school. Most of the songs that ended up on the album appeared on earlier independent albums. We started Swim with Ken, doing pre-production at Group Effort in Covington, Kentucky, and basics at Longview Farms in Massachusetts. At that time, we had a large house/studio in the Cincinnati area, which we used to cut additional guitars and some vocals. Midway through the recording process, the label suggested bringing in some "fresh ears". We agreed, and our managers helped us track down Ben Grosse and Blumpy. We were interested in them primarily for their work with Fuel, Filter, and Vertical Horizon. They really helped us to look at the songs in a new way. I spent two and a half months living in L.A., working 12 hour days in the studio, polishing and stretching things until it all felt right.
You recorded the album at the legendary Longview Farms studio in MA. That must have been pretty sensational considering the history of that place.
It certainly was humbling. To a big extent, rock and roll is a tradition. I had never really felt that way until we visited Longview. First of all, we were working with the late Cesar Diaz, guitar tech and guitarist for Bob Dylan. It's always such a powerful feeling, standing in the same places and doing the same things as your "forefathers", so to speak. Longview has such a powerful mystique and vibe to it that it's almost haunting. We heard plenty of great stories about The Stones and Aerosmith, to name a few. "Steven played that piano on..." "Bob and I used to..."
Off a gravel road a ways down from the barn, there is a pond, with a dock where all these legendary bands and artists had carved their names. Carving our name into the wood, and looking out at the water, I felt fortunate to be even a very, very small part of the legacy that is American music.
A lot of the lyrics on Swim contain spiritual/religious imagery and as a result, it makes for a more rewarding listen than a lot of other modern rock bands I've heard. Tell me how the idea of religion and spirituality influences your songwriting.
I was raised Catholic, and attended Catholic schools all my life. So it was always a big part of the way I saw the world, but I'm not a religious person anymore. Spiritual, probably, but religious, no. With that said, I definitely do have an affinity with religious and spiritual iconography -- angels and candles and ghosts and God and the like. Unfortunately, it's difficult to talk about spirituality without being labeled a Christian band. A Christian band, we are not.
At the very least, I can say that I didn't second-guess myself lyrically too much with the writing of Swim. If I had, maybe we wouldn't have ended up with so many misinterpretations, but then again, we probably wouldn't have some of the wonderfully perceptive, sensitive fans that we have either. Some people look at stained glass and think "heaven," and some people just think "pretty." I don't know.
I'm also intrigued by the song "Normal Life." What's the meaning behind that particular song? When I first heard it, I thought it was a rejection of everything the song is about (i.e. the fast car and pretty wife), but now I'm not so sure.
I like to keep people guessing... Actually, while there is some sarcasm here and there, I really do mean all that. I made a big switch with the way I saw the world as we were making the album. I have no idea why. Besides making music, there are two main reasons people join bands. Either a.) To get chicks or b.) To feel special. I definitely don't have a problem with girls, but that was never really my motivation. And I've also come to realize, that feeling special is not as important as feeling happy. For a long time, all I wanted was to get out of my home town and be different and cool and extraordinary. I would be lying if I said that isn't still important to me. I admit. I want to matter. But one day, I want to live in a nice little neighbourhood with a wife, and maybe even take kids to soccer games. Maybe in a minivan (but probably not), eat corn dogs and make snowmen. These are the things that really make you happy. the little, simple, everyday, ordinary, normal things. More and more, that's where I seek comfort, and I want to make music about that.
"And Gomorra" is probably the most powerful, affecting song on the album. How did you come to write that one?
"Gomorra" was born from the ashes of a fiery break-up. Wow. Stupid puns. But that's the truth. It's the oldest song on the album. I think I wrote it when I was 18. It's basically a huge extended metaphor about the Old Testament cities of Sodom and Gomorra, where God represents love, and the cities represent the relationship, et cetera.
Despite the epic proportions of songs like "Believe," you are also able to communicate the fragility of human emotion as in "Washed Away." I believe that song was written about your grandfather's death?
Actually, my father. He died of cancer when I was a kid. Music was always the best way for me to find release growing up and dealing with that. Those two songs were sort of the opposite ends of the same feelings -- "Washed Away" was about trying to let things go, and believe was more about trying to get things back. I think I've kind of exhausted the topic for now... but I guess when you need to say something, you need to say it. There are a lot of things on Swim that were supposed to be there, that I'm going to leave there.
Are your lyrics supposed to be literally interpreted or not?
Depends on the line I suppose. There were plenty of people who had trouble interpreting the stuff on Swim. People generally don't see pop or rock music as a medium where you can be sarcastic, or funny, but I think music should be like people. I go through moods and phases with my writing, just like anyone does with his or her life. I have days where I'm angry or happy or filled with sarcasm, and days when I'm just plain sad. The album has lots of different moods and ideas, literal and metaphorical, and the new songs do and will too. It's important for me to keep stretching myself and looking at things from lots of different angles, under different lights.
I also love the input cellist TJ Miller brings to your sound. I think he contributes that something extra to a band like July For Kings, would you agree?
Totally. I joke with people that he's the "real musician" of the group. He's classically trained, but has a lot of "pop-sensibility" (must say "pop-sensibility" at least once in every interview or review, see Music Industry Rule #739). He writes great cello parts, harmonies, leads, et cetera. He fills a space with much-needed colour and texture. Plus he wakes me up in the mornings and sometimes he even brings me coffee.
Leaving aside how it all eventually worked out with MCA, was the whole major-label experience how you imagined it to be?
Not really. The problem is that nobody really tells you what to expect, until you already have your hopes up. Not saying that the experience was a let-down, but it certainly isn't the way you envision it when you're fifteen, playing your sister's basement birthday party, wide-eyed and dreaming of rock stardom. The one thing I was especially surprised at is how much day-to-day work outside of actually writing and playing music we continued to do. There were days when I forgot there was a label...
In retrospect, it's really hard to say how typical our experience was, given the instability of the company. Then again, I don't know if there IS a typical experience... But what do you do? We finally get a deal with one of America's oldest and most well-known major labels, and it collapses as our album is coming out. But people are always saying that less than 5% of artists actually make back the money they spent on their album for the label. So, whatever. We roll the dice again! Chances are, we won't have to make twenty albums to have a successful one. But even so, I can write twenty albums if that's what it takes. I'm young. No problem. Ad astra per aspera!
Was it a difficult decision to carry on with the band after you parted company with MCA?
Not for me. First of all, it became increasingly apparent that the big merger/layoffs/artist drops were coming. There were rumours of it even before we were signed there. Life has its ups and downs, 'ya know? We were so fortunate to even land a deal and record an album in the first place, that I tried to keep everything in perspective and not get too angry or upset about it. It was out of my hands. All I can do is write songs and play them. Now, we've got some interest from other labels again, so things are looking up.
Plus, this is it for me. I can't do anything else. I forgot how. I really love it too much to stop. I knew when I was ten years old that I would never have an easy job. I was always drawing pictures. Drawing, drawing, drawing. Mostly scary, evil-looking things. My father was always telling me, "You know, artists don't make much money..." and "Why don't you draw nice things?" Of course, he eventually came to terms with the fact that I was probably never going to be putting on a tie in the morning, and I eventually came to terms with the uncertainty of this kind of a career. In the end, it's got to be about doing what makes you the happiest.
You've lost two members of your band and lost your record deal in the space of a few of months. I guess all this wasn't in the plan when you started the band! How do you think the line-up changes will alter the band?
Not the easiest of times, no. It's interesting, when the way you envision the rest of your life in your head starts parting with your real life. Sometimes your real life just doesn't give a shit about the one in your head. But with every negative is a positive, and having the opportunity to play with new musicians is certainly something we've been enjoying, and are looking forward to. A new line-up means another big chance for us to grow as musicians and performers and that's always a good thing.
How do you normally write songs? On acoustic guitar? Do you record using ProTools while you are on the road?
My writing process changes frequently. Recently, I've been starting with an idea, or a topic, and filling in all the gaps. I've always got some melodies and chord changes floating around in my head. Sometimes they work with one of my ideas, and then I have a song. I usually write an entire song in one sitting, and I almost always write with an acoustic (the same acoustic, actually). I have been using a program called Sonar, since I don't own a Mac, and it tends to run better than Pro-Tools does on a PC. I just recently got into recording stuff on my own.
I don't use the laptop to write songs, but I do use it to write parts. A couple weeks ago, T and I were in a hotel room finishing up some new guitar things for a song called "Invincible". It felt really good to be working that way. I imagine it's something we'll be doing more and more.
Are you a prolific writer when it comes to writing songs? What bands/songwriters influence your songwriting and JFK's sound?
Sometimes I write more than others. I haven't been writing much the last couple of weeks, mainly due to other distractions (i.e. making money for rent), but I will have weeks or months where I write manically. When I am writing two songs a day, they're usually not very good. When I write only three songs in a month, they're usually much better. So I am much more relaxed about writing these days than I used to be. I am still getting used to the idea of writing for an album, whereas before it was just writing because that's what I do. I am a songwriter. Now, it's, "We've got to have twelve songs for the second album." That's just weird. Occasionally our managers check in and make sure I'm writing lots of songs. But it's not like making cheeseburgers. I know, I made lots of cheeseburgers in high school. With songs, you have to be in the right mindset, with something to say, have some time set aside, et cetera, so I just wait for those moments, and go with it.
I've been lucky enough to hear some of your new songs such as "Lighthouseï," "Six Hour Drive" and the brilliant "Perfect World." How far does your new material draw on your experiences over the past year?
Well, the new songs definitely reflect the sorts of things that have happened to me in the last couple years. "Invincible", one of the newest, is about dealing with everything changing so quickly, and trying to adapt to it. The best way for me to look at it is that without some kind of struggle, I wouldn't have as much to write about. There will probably be lots of why-oh-why stuff, similar to some of the songs on Swim, but I think there will be a wider range of topics, as I've lots of new and different experiences. Overall, I would like to think that the songs are becoming more mature both lyrically and musically, and I'm extremely excited about seeing an album to materialize.
I presume you will be looking for another record deal in the near future. Would you sign with another major, or given your experiences with MCA, would you be happier to go down a different route?
I think we're going to try it again at a major. Like I said, if there is a typical major label experience, I don't think ours at MCA was. I would die happy if we never achieved any greater success, major label or otherwise, but I don't think we'll stop trying anytime soon. We have never been ashamed of wanting to be rock stars. It's the American dream. Do what you love and get paid for it.
Despite the trauma that's happened to the band over the past few months, you are still a musician and a band that loves to get out there and play live. You are still touring off your own back, whereas other bands may say, "We can't tour without any major label support." You deserve a lot of credit for that.
Well, thanks for noticing! We've been breaking even or taking a hit on just about every trip we've taken recently, but if you're going to be a band, you had better play for people. At least, that's the way I always looked at it. We would much rather finance short tours here and there with our own money than sit at home. I don't want to be in the band that disappears for two years between albums, or makes one album and breaks up. I'm in this for the long-haul, and as long as there are people listening, there will be music.
Do you plan to record a follow-up to Swim during 2003 or do you think it will more likely be 2004?
It's hard to say. I am guessing, as much as our fans will hate to hear this, that it'll be 2004. We're inching ever closer to having the material, but that's not all there is to it... It will take months at least to negotiate a new contract, and months to record, make the art, manufacture it, etc. I wish it wasn't, but it's a really long process. That's why we've been putting demos on the site. We want to maintain some kind of relationship with the people who are listening.
Finally, I know you are very appreciative of the support of your fans. What would be your message to them?
Thanks! That's the good stuff. Contracts and labels and all that doesn't really mean jack compared to sharing music with fans. And we have the greatest fans around. Not the most, but definitely the best. They are my extended family, so thanks for reading. And thanks, Andrew for talking with me!
July For Kings: http://www.julyforkings.com