Happy Jawbone Family Band Discuss Brattleboro, Googling Pictures of Lions
Having released their debut album less than a month ago, the Happy Jawbone Family Band have already been frequently branded as the “oddball” bunch from Vermont (although they’re not particularly fond of that branding). We recently caught up with HJFB’s frontman Luke Csehak, via email, to find out what they think of being called “weirdos”, where that mouthful of a band name originated from and how one of their songs was inspired by imagining how many lions could fit into a bed.
How did you come up with the band name “Happy Jawbone Family Band”?
I used ‘Happy Jawbone’ to name a fictional rock band in a story, based on actual events, about a girl who feeds herself to polar bears at the zoo. That's the sorta crap I used to write. Nowadays, I write mostly about pillows and their lifestyles. The ‘Family Band’ part, Francis came up with. I think it's because we all sort of hate each other but end up getting along somehow.
For anyone who’s yet to hear your music, how would you describe your sound? Who are your key musical influences, particularly on your new album?
Jeez, I don't know. I guess I sorta see the band as just a pure rock and roll band, you know, constantly searching for the true essence of rock and roll. People never think about this, but to do rock and roll real justice, it's actually a difficult thing to get right. There's a lot of subtle things you have to get down, and then there's the savage tremble. If you do it right, you feel yourself obliterated in the rock and roll laser-beam. So I guess I'd say that we're part of the Little Richard-Dylan-Ramones lineage. Sort of an esoteric exercise that's actually very emotionally accessible.
I read that Elspeth had no musical experience prior to joining the band as the drummer. Did she pick up music quickly/why did she decide to join as a drummer? Did the rest of the band have previous backgrounds in music?
Yeah, she's a natural drummer. Took 0 hours. I hardly had to manipulate her at all to get her to do it. It's also my first band actually. Only Francis had been in other bands at first. We recorded all these songs together while we were going to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and when we were done, he said, “We gotta play these, it's a cinch to start a band, just manipulate some of your friends”. And it's true, too – it's a bit too easy. It happened so quickly and then there goes my whole life! But recently, we got David Lineal to play keys and drums and he's been in some bands, Bird Names is the band he's still in. It's a killer.
It seems to surprise people that you all still have day jobs. Would you like to be full-time musicians, or is it important for you to continue to have side jobs, as well? What are your side jobs?
Hell no! I mean, I'll always love sandwiches, but I'm not shedding any tears if I never have to make one again! Elspeth and Bobby are farmers, Francis used to farm, but now he works as a bathroom attendant and David is actually a door-to-door salesman, which is hilarious if you know him. We're trying like hell to get rid of our jobs, but nobody wants to pay musicians money because they have computers that are really good at playing recordings. I don't know why people are so surprised. I guess It's just cause of how messed up the music business is. 90% of bands who actually get any attention are living off of some family money, cause they're the only ones that can afford touring. And even the sickest bands need to tour for a few years before anyone pays attention to them and they turn even a slight profit, which is then heavily taxed. I know all these bands that think it's normal to pay money to get someone to listen to you're music. It's a little sad, don't you think?
What’s Brattleboro, Vermont like? Is there a big music scene over there? Has it had any particular impact on your music?
Oh yeah, we're a Brattleboro band to the core! It's totally different than any other scene happening. People liken it to Olympia or Elephant 6, but I think it's even more eclectic and the bands are even better, though there are fewer of them. The Feathers Family has had a big influence [on us], especially their solo projects: King Tuff, Ruth Garbus, Chris and Kurt Weisman, but also newer groups like Blanche Blanche Blanche and Great Valley and a bunch of other bands and personal projects. It's hard to list them all! But really, the funny thing about the Brattleboro world is that you're not exactly going to influence any of your friends that much, [because] everyone has their own thing going on. Of course, there is some overlap, but it's a bit like the beats. The beats were stylistically miles apart, but they understood what each other was doing, probably better because of the vantage point. The music is also more like writing than other music. It's a home recording town. Everyone in Brattleboro are social misfits that mostly sit in their rooms recording and will sometimes go out and start a band with them. Everyone I know has a few albums stored away, waiting for a few finishing touches. Recently, we've all started playing more shows, but this is a new thing. We used to never play shows. There are no good places to play in Brattleboro since the Tinderbox closed.
You appear to have been branded as Vermont’s “weirdo”/”oddball” band. Does that upset you, or is that what you were hoping for? Would you agree?
Yeah, we're not crazy about that. I mean, I don't find my life that weird, it's just my life. I guess it's just rare for a band to have a sense of humor these days. Everyone wants to have some dark, edgy, forlorn, sexual magnetism on stage. But I'll let you in on a little secret: all these bands are all actually having a lot of fun and cracking dumb jokes and picking their noses and being nice to each other in real life. I've seen it! We're just one of the few who are actually honest about it. You get what you see with the Happy Jawbone Family Band.
Speaking of which, your album contains some humorous/bizarre lyrical content. What would you say is the strangest song/set of lyrics on your album, and what’s the story behind them?
I couldn't say, you know, they all sound completely normal to me because that's my mind. We're not at some Happy Jawbone conference table, brainstorming ideas on how to seem more bizarre. We're just being honest about our minds and what delights them. I think if you look at them closely, they might not seem so strange. They're just fresh. For instance, in one lyric I say, "I looked at pictures of lions on the web./Here I made a little list of my favorites./Take a look or two at my top ten./Just how many lions do you think I could fit in my bed." It's about this one time that I was actually looking at pictures of lions on the web, because as you might know, lions look fucking awesome. Who wouldn't look at lions on the web at some point in their lives if they could? As for putting them in your bed, if you've never imagined that, then I blame that on your own lack of imagination. You lead a sad life, and I'm sorry for you.
You’ve released quite a few DIY/cassette releases over the years, and your new album still has a lo-fi element to it – was it important/intentional for you to keep that sound?
Yeah, definitely. Our past bandmate, Alex Edgeworth, of the Lust Cats Of The Gutters, described it as "the dust-cloud," which is what it sounds like. It’s the collection of wayward frequencies in a recording that gives it a particular flavor. Like instruments that you can't really hear, or that blend in with other instruments in ways you don't consciously hear, but come across in the overall feel. A lot of people think it's due to laziness and messiness in the production, but it's actually something that we spend incalculable hours carefully sculpting. Part of the idea of this new album was: what would it sound like to keep the dust cloud but to record it in the most hi-fi way? So the album is technically hi-fi. If you were to take each individual track and listen to it you'd see the fidelity is very high. But when you layer them in the way we do it makes it sound reminiscent of lo-fi. A lot of older rock songs are recorded this way, but it was before advances in home-recording made everyone feel insecure about themselves. Back then, it just sounded awesome. There wasn't this whole socio-economic drama poisoning the waterhole.
Considering you recorded all of your previous releases in a basement, how was it recording your new album in a studio with a producer? Was it drastically different, in any other ways?
It was more collaborative. A lot of the time, our old songs would be me or Francis overdubbing all the parts. With this one, there were other bandmates on all the songs. But also, everyone had more say in the creative process. It was like a mini movie set. For each track, there was Jarvis Taverniere, the producer, Al Carlson, the engineer, and the person playing the track, all discussing how it should sound. Also, I made sure to get my hands on every minute decision that was made. And that also translates to the broader visions of the songs and the album as a whole. Everyone had their own vision that was incorporated into the final product. So it was also a very anal album. Every album I make, I spend a bunch of time on. I'm sure Steve Albini would hate me. But with this one, we spent a disgusting amount of time on it. We made demos and reworked every aspect of the song: structure, arrangement, lyrics, even what key the song's in. We played 10-20 takes of some of the songs. It was amazing. That's how I love to work. I wish I could start again next week.
Have you been pleased with the reaction the album’s been receiving so far? Is it what you’d anticipated?
No, I thought more people would dislike it. I've yet to see a real negative review and there has been a fair chunk of reviews. I sorta miss the panning, to tell you the truth! Those are the funnest to read and it's good bonding for the band. It improves solidarity and makes us work harder. I've been reading James Brown's autobiography, and I love how he talks about music as hard work. I always thought rock and roll was for slacking, but it turns out it's more complicated than that.
You recently took part in Mexican Summer’s five year celebration. How has it been working with Mexican Summer, and how was playing the event?
It was great. It felt like we were part of a real thing, like we're an important part of a larger cultural force. It's funny, we've gone so long not even really thinking about being appreciated. It's a nice surprise! Everyone at Mexican Summer is 100% supportive of us, in ways we aren't even supportive or ourselves.
I saw you have a HJFB fan-club, where you send out free stuff to fans. What kinds of things have you sent out to people? What kinds of drawings have you received from fans? Can you share one of them with us?
It’s too bad that I'm away from the archive, because we're touring, but we get some real gems! I'd love to scan some for you some other time. Some of them are actually really touching. People open up to us about their lives. One guy said that ‘Fireflies Made Out Of Dust’ inspired him to get in touch with someone whose heart he had broken a long time ago. One of the first ones we ever got was written on a pink Post-It note. It said: “Thanks for your music. I listened to it every day while I was at rehab.” I know it sounds like I'm making it up, huh? But it's true. As for what we send, it's different every time, but each time it's the perfect thing for that person at that time. Don't get excited, though, it's usually just a bunch of junk, but if you're a true Bonehead, then you'll understand. Boneheads are what we call our fans. The people who don't like us are called muggles.
In your new video for ‘Everybody Knows About Daddy’, you’re all in a kitchen making breakfast and singing together. Is that pretty much a typical snapshot of a day in the life of HJFB?
Yeah, it pretty much is except normally David is not allowed to cook. You can see why in the video. He's the one butchering the eggs. If you leave David unattended in your kitchen, he'll improvise a pie out of whatever he can find. Hot cocoa, animal crackers, lemon heads, anything is fair game to him. Breakfast is my thing. You can't see that well but I actually made some really good food for the shot, but of course that didn't make the final edit. Sweet and non-sweet potatoes fried with apples, chicken and apple sausage, roasted garlic, onion, orange pepper, with smoked paprika and rosemary, baked underneath pepper jack cheese and topped off with a fried egg. For some reason the video guys only wanted to show David's travesty. They were a bunch of muck rakers, and they made me look fat. Actually, I am a little fat, but not quite as fat as I look in the video.
The Happy Jawbone Family Band’s self-titled, debut album is out now via Mexican Summer.