Jukebox the Ghost seems to be under so many influences that it should have a designated driver. Just two years after the band’s accomplished debut, Let Live and Let Ghosts, the Philadelphia trio’s sophomore album, Everything Under the Sun, was easily one of the most surprising albums of 2010.
A work of incredible maturity and diversity, Everything Under the Sun perfectly framed JTG’s melodic gifts with shades of Sparks’ hyper-caffeinated quirk, the Prog/Pop majesty of Jellyfish and The Grays and Ben Folds’ piano Pop sophistication, while remaining grounded in the foundational architecture of the individual and collective Beatles and the bombastic cathedral paintings of Queen. However, as vocalist/keyboardist Ben Thornewill explains, sonic familiarity doesn’t necessarily reflect influences.
“I like Jellyfish and Sparks, especially, but they’ve never been a reference point,” Thornewill says. “We may have even discovered them after people said, ‘Hey, you sound like …’ Influence is a hard thing; I don’t think we ever hear a band or sound and say, ‘I want our band to sound like that.’ The only band we all agree on is The Beatles. It’s more like 10 seconds of a song one of us will privately pick from something, but there’s no overarching band reference point for our music.”
JTG started six years ago in Washington, D.C., when Thornewill, vocalist/guitarist Tommy Siegel and drummer Jesse Kristin were students at George Washington University. After graduation, the band members decided to take music more seriously, moving to Philadelphia, changing their name to Jukebox the Ghost and gigging and touring. The band’s new name was an example of their unanimity.
“In retrospect, I wish we’d chosen a name that was easier to explain,” Thornewill says, laughing.
“ ‘Ghost comes from the Nabobov book Pnin — there’s this great quote from there — and jukebox is from a rambling Captain Beefheart lyric. We’re a very democratic band; Tommy wanted ‘Jukebox,’ I wanted ‘Ghost’ and Jesse wanted us to be a ‘the’ band, so we stuck it in the middle and ran with it.”
The name selection was followed by a natural sonic evolution, as the threesome channeled disparate influences into a unified direction. Let Live and Let Ghosts was a promising first step; Everything Under the Sun is a tall-building-in-a-single-bound leap of crackling Pop wonder. Lyrically, JTG masks their darkly tinted, slyly pessimistic messages with an irresistible icing of sweet sonic sunshine, a shovelful of sugar making the bitter medicine go down. That’s not to say that JTG is overly sweet; they are among the most brilliantly gifted melodicists in contemporary Indie Pop, yet there’s a distinct edge to their sugary musical buzz, like a licorice pistol with a cotton candy silencer and a full clip of peppermint bullets.
“It’s gradual, and most of the credit goes to how much touring and playing on the road we’ve done,” Thornewill says. “We as a band only practice maybe twice a year. We’ll hole up for eight days and do a marathon session of writing, but the rest of the year, practice is just us being on the road. And as people get older, music changes and we get a little more competent, and as time goes on, we figure out what we want to sound like more and more and we can be more confident in those choices.”
Over the past half-dozen years, JTG has done more than their share of opening gigs, including for Ben Folds in 2009 and Barenaked Ladies last fall. Some bands bristle at the dues that must be paid as a warm-up act, but Jukebox the Ghost is not in that category.
“My favorite part about opening is that it’s really a test and you’re given not a long time; with big opening slots, half an hour, which is not a huge amount of songs,” Thornewill says. “In that half an hour, your goal is to completely win over 1,000 people who have never heard you or heard of you before, and I love it. You can feel that point, maybe three or four songs in, when the audience snaps and it’s dead quiet between songs and they’re paying attention. But it’s nice to go from a month of opening to headlining and seeing the fruits of that labor and playing for fans we might have made at a big opening slot.”
Still, there are moments of consternation for Jukebox the Ghost.
“We played at a Punk festival in Jacksonville, Fla., and it was nothing but Hardcore scream bands and us; I don’t know how we got on the bill,” Thornewill says. “Before and after us, it’s heads thrashing and during our set, they’re soundchecking and they have these huge Marshall stacks and in the middle of our songs, you just hear ‘kong-ka-kong-ka-ka’ blasting over us. That was a little uncomfortable. It was funny, we had maybe 20 or 30 bright-eyed Jukebox fans right in the front and maybe 500 people in front of our stage and it went over well, but I think the general attitude was ‘I don’t quite know what these guys are doing here.’ ”
JUKEBOX THE GHOST performs Tuesday at Covington’s Mad Hatter with Wakey!Wakey! and Pretty & Nice. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.