Consider the Slate Cleaned
Jaguar Love is something like a post-rock supergroup, if such a thing were to exist. Two parts The Blood Brothers and one part Pretty Girls Make Graves, Jaguar Love toes a difficult line between occupying the niche carved out by the sum of its parts, and breaking that mold to explore new territory.
“I think it makes it easier and harder,” says vocalist/pianist Johnny Whitney, formerly of The Blood Brothers, of starting a new project after the demise of his well established previous band. “It’s easier in the sense that when we started the band, it was really easy to get people’s attention, and it was really easy to get shows and getting a record deal wasn’t hard for us, because we already had connections in place from our previous bands. It’s difficult in a sense that no matter what people have, they come to it with their own expectations.”
Whitney didn’t have much time to brood over his next move. The carcass of his former band was still quite warm when he and fellow ex-Brother, guitarist Cody Votolato, began writing new songs for what would become Jaguar Love. In June, Pretty Girls Make Graves multi-instrumentalist J Clark soon joined in and the trio moved to Portland, Ore., where they started putting together material in June 2007. Though fans’ expectations were somewhat of Whitney’s concern when embarking with the nascent Jaguar Love, it wasn’t a problem he hadn’t faced before.
“It’s the same pattern that The Blood Brothers always struggled with,” he explains. “People who liked The Blood Brothers always wanted us to keep sounding like the record they got into us as. Like, when we were doing “¦Burn, Piano Island, Burn, they wanted us to sound like March on Electric Children; when we were doing Crimes, the wanted us to sound like “¦Burn, Piano Island, Burn.
“I’m happy to have a built-in fan base, no matter what, because of my old band, but at the same time, I’m not going to say that it wouldn’t be rejuvenating to start with a completely clean slate.”
Expectations aside, Take Me to the Sea, Jaguar Love’s debut full-length for Matador, certainly sounds like a fresh start. Though Whitney’s wiry falsetto is still in place, he’s now wailing in front of a more melodic, ear-friendly backdrop. As Whitney explained to Submerge in a recent interview, though hardcore fans of The Blood Brothers may scratch their heads at his and Votolato’s change of direction, the music of Jaguar Love is not only more personal, but may also hold more closely to Whitney’s natural aesthetic.
Over the years, after your last group, has your approach to your vocals changed at all. Has your preparation changed?
In hindsight, I feel like I was still writing for two singers when I wrote the songs on this record [Take Me to the Sea]. It’s a bit more challenging to pull off live than Blood Brothers was, just because of the sheer volume of singing. It’s different that way. It requires me to concentrate a little more on what I’m doing, but other than that it was the same deal.
Going from being in a band with two vocalists, does that affect you at all now that you’re in a band where you’re always front and center? You don’t really have anyone else to help bear the brunt of the workload anymore.
Yeah, it’s different. Being the only singer, I think also makes it easier for me to be myself on stage and not always be thinking about somebody else. It lends itself to letting my personality come out a little better.
Lyrically, did it make it easier for you to put forth what you wanted to express?
It was and it wasn’t. I think there’s always something to be said for having a partner. I wrote probably like 90 percent of the lyrics in Blood Brothers. I would write them and give them to Jordan [Blilie]—the other singer—and he’d proofread and bounce ideas off each other. In that sense it was harder, because I was on my own. But in another sense it was easier, because it allowed me to be a little more personal and a little more sincere with what I’m writing about because I’m not sharing it with someone who may not share the experiences I might be writing about.
Would you say this is your most personal record, lyrically?
Yeah, I would say that. I wouldn’t say that it’s even as personal as where most pop records are, but for me, coming from the perspective of someone who never really wrote anything personal, it’s a lot more personal.
You just said pop record, and from what I’ve heard of Blood Brothers, Jaguar Love is definitely more melodic. Was that J Clark’s influence, or was that something that you and Cody were looking to explore?
It was all those things. The thing about our band before this one—the Blood Brothers—were that we were a bunch of people playing in a hardcore band who didn’t like hardcore music. What we would listen to—or at least what I would listen to—were records by Elton John and David Bowie and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and newer stuff like New Order, The Smiths and The Cure—stuff like that. But it always had to come back to us being a hardcore band, because that was the precedent that was set, sort of. When we started this band, we wiped the slate clean and had a sort of anything goes attitude to songwriting. I think the pop element started to show through a little more just because we didn’t have this albatross of hardcore weighing us down.
You mentioned an “anything goes” approach to songwriting, and one song on the album that stuck out to me was “Georgia,” which seemed to me to have a heavy soul influence. What inspired that song? Was it something you were listening to at the time?
I wrote the chords for that song in 2006. It was a song I’d had in my back pocket for a really long time. I didn’t want to use it as a Blood Brothers song because I thought it would be compromised.
Lyrically, it was inspired by a lot of things. Part of it was inspired by this girl who came to a Blood Brothers show who had cancer. She’d skipped a chemotherapy session to come to our show, and she was really far-gone. It was really powerful to see the joy that it brought her to see us and thinking about the fact that she would probably not live long enough to see us again. I never really write about one subject, but there are a few lines in there about that.
I’m sure you guys like to challenge yourselves songwriting-wise, but do you also like to challenge your listeners, to push what they’re able to accept?
Yes, but that’s definitely not at the top of my list when I’m writing a song. I think the most important thing for me when writing a song is having it transport me and move me to somewhere that’s a little more fantastic than the mundanity of everyday life. My hope is that people who listen to our music will have that transformative experience. Whether or not it challenges them—I feel like when you go down that road, you end up writing a bunch of math-y guitar lines and odd time signatures, which is useful at some point, but for this record, I just really wanted to write good songs. I wanted it to be a solid, crazy-sounding pop record. I think people who were hardcore fans of the Blood Brothers, it is kind of a push, because it doesn’t have that unhinged quality that the Blood Brothers did.