Perennials: 1 Band. 1 Year. 52 Songs. 12 Charities.
Jones Street Station recently found itself spread across the United States, with core members living in Brooklyn, LA, Boston, Chicago, and beyond. Rather than closing up shop, they decided to up the ante, pledging to write more music in a year than they had in the previous seven. Knowing this would take a musical collective, the band reached out to their friends and began planning "Perennials."
The project, which aims to write, arrange, record, mix, master, and release 52 songs in 52 weeks, will be created in studios across the country and collaboratively honed in the cloud, using Dropbox, Evernote, Google Hangouts, Ning, Network For Good, SoundCloud, and other tech partners to organize the effort. Proceeds collected during the marathon songwriting project will benefit 12 hand-picked charities personally important to the band.
Originally formed in Brooklyn in 2005, where the albums Overcome and In Verses were written, JSS has shared stages with acts such as Grace Potter and Ben Kweller. In 2010, the band scored the musical Twelve Ophelias and in recent years has written for several feature films, including Hello Lonesome and Who Cares About Kelsey? In 2011, Jones Street collaborated with Danny Pudi, of NBC's Community, to create a video for the band's single 'The Understanding'. In 2012, JSS performed regularly with The GIRLS, a vocal trio which includes Alison Brie, of Community and Mad Men.
Charity partners include: Charity Water, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Musicians on Call, Cause Effective, Rosie’s Place, Camp Interactive, Old Town School of Folk Music, Housing Works, The Trevor Project, Para Los Ninos, and Evacuteer.org.
> On the writing process/project inception:
“We know the project might sound a little crazy, but it actually wasn't something we had to deliberate over or convince each other to sign up for. There were two choices: stop making music together, or adapt. There was no real consideration of the first option, so the project was born of necessity. We're excited and also a little terrified about what lies ahead. But we think we can pull it off, and we hope some good songs come out of it.”
>On the tech partners:
“Collaborative software has evolved to a point where a project like this possible. It's really hard to imagine how we would coordinate composition, arrangement, tracking, editing, and mixing between 4+ studios without Dropbox, Evernote, Google+, and Logic.”
> Regarding the charities:
“We thought about just throwing up the tunes on our site or releasing them on iTunes but this seems like so much more fun. Plus, adding 12 charities gave the project a natural organization - 1 each month, 12 mini-albums. So, these causes helped give the project form while also increasing its potential for doing some good. We feel great about this facet of Perennials.”
Of all the bands Brooklyn has produced in recent years, rarely has the borough birthed an Americana-rock love child like Jones Street Station. But this isn't just Appalachia-on-the-Hudson—the band is just as fond of rockstar timbres and synths as it is mandolin, banjo licks and harmonica. We're not the first to liken them to a little band called Wilco, and we'd humbly submit the folk/pop stylings of The Avett Brothers and the jamboree ethos of Akron/Family for comparison as well."
- Paste Magazine
Interview from Paste Magazine 9/9/09
Paste: How did you all come together?
Danny Erker (vocals, banjo, mandolin, guitar): Three or four years ago, [Jon and I] musically met Walt and JB. A couple years before that, Jonny and I had met playing at a regular bluegrass session in the West Village at a place called the Baggot Inn, which unfortunately is no more but for many, many years was the best bluegrass jam session in the city. Jonny and I went there and we were kind of—well, not kind of—we were total outcasts. I played mandolin but didn't know how to play bluegrass, and Jon played the harmonica, which isn't a bluegrass instrument.
Jon Hull (vocals, harmonicas, accordion): People got pissed.
Erker: We both just appreciated the fact that we were new to the scene and it's a very welcoming scene. So we met doing that. We were in a traditional bluegrass band for [three] years, playing bluegrass standards and some of our original compositions and very quickly we were like, "We don't want to just play bluegrass."
Hull: We love bluegrass, but that's not the only kind of music we wanted to make.
Erker: We felt like we couldn't do what we wanted to do with our group at the time. Everyone was phenomenally talented, but it was a traditional band. So Jonny and I started playing shows just the two of us... And we wrote a bunch of songs, and we got asked to do a residency at Pianos on the Lower East Side.
Hull: We asked JB and Walt to come join us and fill out the sound, because there was only so much that we could do. It was like, "Hey, can you play three gigs with us?" And three gigs turned into "Hey, join Erker: So we did this Pianos residency and we played as a foursome for a long time. The four of us worked with a percussionist, and he actually left the country, and then a very good friend and coworker of mine introduced Sam to me.
Sam Rockwell (drums, percussion): I'd seen you play, and I really liked it. I was playing at that time in The XYZ Affair.
Erker: It's also important to understand that Walt and JB have their own musical experience...
Jonathan "JB" Benedict (vocals, piano, synth): I'm the keyboard player in the band, play all different kinds of synths and also produce music. So I was interested in the band because I wanted to produce records with them, but I didn't listen to much bluegrass. So the things that were influencing me that were points of intersection were Tom Waits and REM... All the early British invasion stuff, that's really near and dear to my heart. And Bowie. And the Velvet Underground.
Walt Wells (vocals, bass, guitar): And... I like music.
Erker: Walt's gonna act like he's not articulate, which is fine. Here's the thing: Of any of us, Walt has the most eclectic musical background. He has played in a soul revue, a choir, a Japanese—what is that called?
Hull: Mariachi band, orchestra...
Wells: I was playing in a couple different projects before I came to [this band]. Immediately, there was a sense of brotherhood, there was a sense of promise—a sense that this was always going to be a sum greater than the whole, and the whole, quite frankly, added up was quite big. And I was struck immediately by that and, really, promptly dropped everything else I was doing and said, "Everything else I do, I get paid for—this is my creative baby."
Hull: We all kind of did that.
Erker: We did. But I really think—and you guys tell me if I'm wrong—that the first time that the five of us have really been able to have our musical say is on our current record, In Verses.
Hull: Well, Sam wasn't even in the band for the first one.
Erker: I'm not simply talking about a studio context—it's a place where we can identify a benchmark, where we can say, "This was the result of a collaboration." So if you like it, you like something that, as Walt said, is a sum that is greater than the parts brought to the equation. And what's so interesting is that I already feel us, and not in a bad way at all, moving beyond this recording in a creative way.
Paste: Where do you see yourselves going musically?
Erker: Toward increased collaboration. On In Verses, which I'm extremely proud of, it's still fairly possible to identify the creative origins of the tunes, and identify the individual who brought it to the band. Not that that's ever going to go away, because that's how songs get written. But I'd like those lines to get blurred even further.
Hull: That's a good articulation.
Wells: The instincts that I would've had two years ago have now been changed and transmuted by the instincts that I now have today having played with you guys.
Hull: Because you get to know people. When you get to know the people you're playing with and it's not just a bunch of mercenaries...
Rockwell: Also, we are always open to unconventional stuff that comes our way. Something that we did while we were recording the current record, there was a play that went on at McCarren Pool last year which we scored all of the music for—it was a musical.
Hull: We wrote nine songs in two weeks.
Rockwell: And for several of them, all five of us went into a room with literally no idea how the song would turn out. And when we left three or four hours later, just from sitting in JB's studio messing around, we had close to what ended up being the final product. That's an absolute level of collaboration which had never happened before. And we're now working on scoring a movie. At this point, we know that we can all get into a room and something comes out of that which we're proud of. Other people can judge whether they like it or not, but it's something that we're proud of.
Erker: If I could just add one more thing: I feel like our next record—we're chomping at the bit to do it already. Speaking for the band, I really feel like we've gotten to a point where the music-making process is somewhat demystified, if that makes a little bit of sense, where it's like, we know we can do certain things and it'll sound good. And it becomes more like work, and I don't mean that in a bad way. You show up—
Hull: Work you're psyched to do.
Erker: Exactly. And you just bring things to the table and you woodshed and the good stuff comes out. We've established a rapport that's characterized by trust and openness and encouragement and punches in the face. Where you can say, "You brought this idea. That's not working," and no one's feelings are hurt. And the result of that is, I think, better music. So the third album will be even more of a synthesis of what we each individually bring.
Wells: And the fact that we run a democratic ship enough that our bullshit filter is collective. So anything has to pass all five of us.
Rockwell: It makes the decision-making process excruciating.
Erker: It's like "Where do you want to have lunch on tour?" and it's terrible. [Laughs]
Hull: Can I make a serious point? When you're making records and you're doing these projects, like scoring a theater production, it keeps the band and the members in a constant state of evolution, not just as band members but as musicians. And I think that's something that really comes across and something that we strive for, and something that really keeps us creatively engaged. Some people, you make a record, then you make another record, then you make another record... We're constantly making music of all kinds together.
Paste: Well, the Wilco comparison comes up about you guys. Is that what you mean? Because you say "demystifying" and that doesn't sound entirely like a great thing, in the sense that you don't want to be complacent in anything...
Wells: Well, you get the sense listening to the new Wilco record that they are ultimately craftsmen—they know their form and they know what they're doing.
Erker: If I may comment on a Wilco comparison—which, by the way, I'm happy to endorse!
Hull: We're not pissed at that at all.
Erker: I could not be more excited to be compared to any other band. I grew up in St. Louis and I used to sneak into Mississippi Nights and watch Uncle Tupelo play when I was 16. And if you watch Wilco's progression from A.M. to I think Summerteeth is the real benchmark... Certainly [on] Being There, Tweedy was like, "I'm going to take a step away from these kind of pleasant, alt-rock, bar-band tunes that are beautiful and really fun, and really put my foot in it." And I just saw them play at Keyspan Park in Coney Island, and it was the best live show I've ever seen. I think what makes them so wonderful ... [Glenn Kotche] in Spin said "We are a sickeningly functional band." That is precisely what I'm talking about: You demystify the music-creation process because you bring a set of skills and an open-mindedness to making music. All of a sudden, [the songs] are good enough that they can record them, because they've worked hard enough, they've established that camaraderie and they've gone through the shit together. So yeah, it sounds kind of automatic and maybe a little bit unromantic, but to a certain extent, making good music is work. There's art involved, but you have to balance the two. I'm completely happy to be compared to a band that describes itself as "sickeningly functional."
Paste: You guys are picking up some steam—you're fresh off opening for Ben Kweller. Do you feel different? Do you think you'll look back at this time as a pivotal point?
Rockwell: It's probably different for everyone. So we can maybe all give four sentences. laughs For me, it is and it isn't, in that it's really awesome playing these bigger venues and...
Wells: We're in an air-conditioned dressing room, for fuck's sake!
Rockwell: We're playing venues where some of the coolest shows I've seen have been on those stages, and you see the other acts that are coming through on those stages and it's "Whew, man." It's sort of intimidating that we're playing those stages. [Laughs] It's really cool.
Paste: Walt, you have a degree in ethnomusicology. What do you think of having a bluegrassy, Americana band in the middle of hipsterfied Brooklyn? Do you think that says anything—did you evolve here in a way you weren't expecting when you came to the city?
Wells: From an ethnomusicological perspective, the thing that's very interesting about bluegrass in New York is that it has stayed consistent in New York since the '60s folk revival. There was a Jewish population that immediately linked into that Pete Seeger folk revival and has kept the bluegrass community vibrant in New York ever since. So from an ethnomusicological perspective, that's interesting. I had never played a fucking lick of country 'til I got to New York.
Hull: The reason I found the bluegrass jam where I met Danny is purely because I moved to New York, all the blues clubs had closed, I couldn't find a single place to play music. A friend of mine was like, "You should go play bluegrass! Thirty people play at the same time; all you have to do is show up." I thought, "That sounds amazing." I was like a nervous little kid. I brought my harmonica, and I sat it on the table and barely played. The second time, I played a little bit. The third time, a little bit more. I did it 'cause I had to—that speaks to everyone in the band. We have to play music. Otherwise, we're not functional and happy. As human beings.
Erker: The way I look at bluegrass as a genre is from an outsider's perspective. I went to a session because, like Jon, I needed to play. I was working on a Ph.D. in linguistics. I wasn't trying to join a band or make records. I needed to go get my rocks off and play some fucking music.