A Talk with Tommy Siegel of Jukebox the Ghost
  • WEDNESDAY, JULY 25, 2012

  • Posted by: Zoe Marquedant

Jukebox the Ghost has been building a steady following since their college days. Since 2008, the trio has released three albums, including their most recent, Safe Travels which was released last month. This year the band has been busy on a summer tour, selling out consecutive dates. I was fortunate enough to grab guitarist Tommy Siegel for a quick interview. He shared his thoughts on where the band hopes to tour, where their music might be going and what made Safe Travels.


Zoe: So you have a new album out, Safe Travels and I was wondering where the name came from. Is 'safe travels' more a message for the band or from the band?

Tommy: It's from a few different angles. It most specifically derives from a song by a guy named Red Hunter who goes under the name Peter and the Wolf. He's a folk singer from Austin, Texas. There's this one called "Safe Travels" that we all really loved. The idea for the album name, being called Safe Travels sort of turned up as that song sort of became a mantra. It's almost always a way of saying 'goodbye'. And there's a lot of songs on this record about death and mortality in general and break-ups. Safe Travels just seemed like a nice way to encapsulate all that in a more positive light.


Z: You mentioned mortality and death. Would you say those are major themes on this album?

T: Yeah, no it's not generally deliberate. It just happened to be what we were writing about at that time. It's funny. A lot of these songs were written before-- well let me give you a little background. Right before recording the record, Ben's grandfather had really just out of nowhere died of cancer. And towards the end of making the record, Jesse's dad died of cancer.
So we had these songs actually written before those two things happened that dealt with mortality and stuff like that. After that stuff happened it took on a whole new light. We felt more empowered as a band to kind of express that sort of thing. You know in the past I don't think our fans would associate us with that kind of subject matter, so it was a little bit of a leap. But it just felt incredibly relevant. It took on a whole new meaning.


Z: So besides your personal lives, what are some of your influences, whether it's other musicians or outside of music?

T: Well the three of us agree on what the band should sound like pretty much ninety percent of the time. As individuals our music taste could not be more diverse. And it's a good thing that our tape player in the van is broken 'cause we'd drive each other nuts with the music that we'd put on. There's actually not a lot of common ground as a band. So it's kind of funny when people ask us that question, I think they expect us to list a bunch of piano pop bands, and that couldn't be further from the reality.


Z: So on Safe Travels there's a song, "Ghost In Empty Houses" - what was the inspiration behind it? That opening line ('In this country/at any given time/there are two million empty houses/and one of them once was mine') is oddly specific...

T: Yeah I've had people that love that opening line for that reason, because it's super specific. And I've had people that are like 'it sounds like an info-graphic' and the truth is it really did come from a news story. I think it comes 100% from the article and I'd have to Google it to make sure, but I think it said, 'in this country at any given time there are two million empty houses'. I thought that was such a haunting image of like millions and millions of completely empty dark houses. And it's so strange especially when you think about the number of homeless people in the United States when you consider that there are all these empty houses sitting around. The song kind of came from thinking about what may be in all those empty houses.


Z Another song I kind of wondered about where it came from is "Say When." The lyrics follow this story line of being somewhere you don't want to be with people you don't want to be around. Was there a particular event or story behind the song?

T: There wasn't really a specific event. And the inspiration for the song is totally embarrassing. I remember we were playing in Omaha, Nebraska and we had been driving and there was some Katy Perry song that was huge at the moment and you could not escape it on any part of the radio dial. And I remember getting out of the car and being like 'I'm going to write a Katy Perry song.' [laughs] And then I wrote "Say When" and obviously we turned it into something else entirely, but the inspiration for it is kind of embarrassing now that I think about it.


Z: So on the album you and Ben both sort of share the role of lead vocals. Was that a choice you guys made going into the record or just how it turned out- you sing your songs and he sings his?

T: That's just the way the band has always been. It's just whoever wrote the song sings it and you know beyond that there's not a lot of thought put into it. But in general the person whose singing it kind of has the best way of expressing the idea and we've definitely had moments where we've had each other sing lines that we've written for the other person. But in general we go by that kind of Beatles thing where whoever wrote it sings it.


Z: You've stuck pretty consistently with the whole guitar-piano-drums format. For your next record do you think you'll expand more in terms of instruments or stick with what works?

T: Well this record still has a lot of expansion on our sound. You can't really hear it that well, but we did play bass on the record. We did try to make it a texture that -- we tried to make it so that you were never aware that there was a bass player, but just something you can feel. So there is bass on the record, there is a string section on I think four songs and a lot of different synthesizers and extra guitars and stuff. So I could see us exploring new avenues, but for our live show we manage to make it work with three people. You know as long as we can do that I think well try to keep-- it's cheaper on tour to feed three mouths rather than five.


Z: So going back to the record-- Safe Travels isn't as quirky as your past two records...I'm not sure if that's the right word, but this is definitely the more serious of your albums. Is that again just a reflection of what the band was going through personally or did you intend to write a more serious record?

T: You know we didn't really go into the album with a specific mindset at all, we just had a bunch of songs. I was really pushing for us to make the album as early as we did, because what happened with Everything Under the Sun is we sort of- we had so many songs back-logged. You know we probably came into the record with like thirty-five songs or something. As a result the song selection process was such a pain. We sort of ended up going with songs that we knew worked live and the more single-y songs, so we kind of ended up with a record that's, you know, twelve singles in a row. So this time I thought it'd be cool to do kind of a different mindset. We have some tracks on there that you know I'm glad that we recorded when we did. If we had tried to test some of these songs out live I don't think they would've gone over very well- songs like "Devils On Our Side", "All for Love", "Man in the Moon", "Dead". You know songs that aren't inherently crowd-pleasers. They made it onto the record just because we had the luxury of making the album without sort of testing it out for everyone or feeling nervous about it.

It wasn't necessarily that deliberate that we were less quirky and maybe we will be in the future too, but you can definitely still hear that are more singles, you know like "Say When" and "Somebody".


Z: So, the songs that didn't make it on to Everything Under the Sun did those end up on Safe Travels or is the record entirely new work?

T: Yeah some of those songs are on Safe Travels. And it's funny, because its not like they didn't end up on Everything Under the Sun because we liked other songs better. We just had a really weird like track list by committee thing for Everything Under the Sun. So there are certain songs that we felt like we HAD to put on, you know, for various reasons. So yeah a lot of the songs on Safe Travels are from that era and some of them are very old. I mean I remember Ben playing "Devil's On Our Side/All For Love", that two song combination. I remember him playing that for me right around when we recorded Let Live and Let Ghost, so that goes way back. Same goes for "A La La" which is a bonus track. That's a really old song probably goes back to 2006 or 2007. You know "Ghost in Empty Houses" was also slatted from Everything Under the Sun and actually I remember writing the first verse and chorus of "Dead" when I was in college as well. So a lot of stuff that we felt sort of deserved its time in the sun.



Z: When you were actually recording Safe Travels did you guys have any routines or superstitions that you fell into? You know, what was a typical day in studio like?

T: We were only in a real studio for maybe four days, during which we recorded all the drums and all the piano. And the rest of the time we spent at our producer Dan Romers apartment, so that was the bulk of the recording. So my memory is just wandering around his neighborhood finding, you know eating at every single take out place that was in a two mile radius. And just hanging out in his living room for you know, like forty or fifty days.

Z: Right so now the band is out on tour and you guys have a couple HQs. You're from DC, Philly, Brooklyn... where do you consider your hometown show to be?

T: It's gotten very confusing. You know I think its easier for a lot of bands, because they sort of launch into a career maybe on their first record so they always get to say they're from X place, no matter where they live. And we've had a slow, gradual growth and during that time we've moved from D.C. to Philly to New York and spent a lot of time in all three of those places. And all three of us are from three different places. Ben is from Louisville, Kentucky. I'm from Richmond, Virginia. Jesse's from Boston. So that all combined makes an incredibly confusing biography and a incredibly confusing hometown sort of thing. I don't even know the answer, but it's starting to feel like every city on the east coast in a hometown show.


Z: Well that's definitely a good thing to have.

T: Yeah no it's very funny. You know there's always friends of the family at any given spot between Boston and Richmond, Virginia.


Z: So you're finishing up your summer tour with Tereau Tereau and company now. Then you just announced a fall tour with Motion City Soundtrack and you toured with Jack's Mannequin last winter. What are some of the thing you learned from those experiences or those musicians that you'll take with you into the future?

T: I mean I think every time we tour we pick up new things. One of the bands we learnt the most from is Guster. Just from seeing a group of guys who've known each other since college as a trio really felt like a reflection of who we are too. And seeing them you know twenty years into their career, they're still all really good friends. And their music has changed, but their fan base has stuck with them. I don't know seeing three guys who are still friends after that long still making great records with a fan base that's followed them all along the way, that's super inspiring for us. And you know we should be so lucky to have a career trajectory like them, they're such nice guys. They were a real inspiration.

Z So going back to the whole idea of Safe Travels-- if you could travel anywhere or tour anywhere or both, where would you go?

T: Hmmm. I have like too many answers to that. I've got a real travel bug so...I really want to tour...Japan. I think that would be totally awesome. I've never been and it would be so amazing to tour Japan. Our first record did come out in Japan, so we were all kind of waiting with baited breath to see if we would actually tour over there and it never ended up happening. So I would love to do that. I would love to tour South America. And I went to Alaska last summer and learned that there are some bands that kind of do an Alaska tour and they tour by boat and pull into various towns and everyone comes out, because it's so rare that outside entertainment comes through. So that would be really fun. I would love to do that.



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