Power pop is not a musical style that comes to mind when talking about the Drive-By Truckers. But fans of the band may not know that it happens to be a passion for Jay Gonzalez. Jay’s work as keyboardist and pedal steel player has added an invigorating dynamic to the Truckers’ gothic Southern rock since he joined the band in 2008. It may not always come through when he plays with that band, but Jay is a die-hard fan of power pop, which is something he pursues in his solo work. He first explored these sounds in detail on his 2012 solo debut, Mess Of Happiness, an album chock full of catchy melodies, jangly guitar, infectious hooks and choruses, and piano playing that would make Nick Lowe smile. Happiness is about as straightforward as you can get as far as power pop goes, and this definitely isn’t a bad thing. But when it came to the follow-up, Jay wanted to dig deeper, get weirder, and do something a bit different.
Talking to Gonzalez at his home in Athens, Georgia during some rare time off the road, his enthusiasm for The Bitter Suite can be felt immediately, even on the other end of a phone a thousand miles away. It’s hard to call The Bitter Suite an album so much as one singular composition. Inspired by conceptual rock operas like The Who’s A Quick One While He’s Away and the medley of songs done by The Beatles on side 2 of Abbey Road, Gonzalez stitched five songs together to flow seamlessly as one piece. The album is a pleasing listen through and through with emotional ups and downs, constant tempo changes, and a kaleidoscope of instruments and sounds performed almost exclusively by Gonzalez. This even includes a mini Casio keyboard he plays while strumming a guitar at the same time. It’s meant to be digested in one listen as opposed to shuffled with a million other songs on your iPod, and this isn’t hard to do considering the five songs on Suite clock in at a total of 13 minutes. You wouldn’t know it from listening, but the material started as “bits and pieces written on the road” when touring with the Truckers. It took a friend’s input to make Gonzalez realize he was sitting on his own little rock opera.
“I just looked at these 5 songs and realized that they were kind of thematic, so I put them in order to work out dramatically, musically and lyrically,” says Gonzalez, who sees nothing wrong with putting them all together after having them down. “I don’t feel too bad about that because anything I’ve ever read about those suite sort of songs in rock, I’m pretty sure they were all kind of sewn together after the initial parts were written.”
The Bitter Suite may be conceptual and a little out there, but Gonzalez still makes his love of power pop the main focus. Hearing a talented musician embrace this criminally underrated genre is a good thing for anyone who yearns for the relative popularity of genre revivalists like Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub in the Nineties. The lack of power pop purists these days was part of the motivation for Gonzalez to pursue it in his own music.
“There’s not a lot of power pop purists, and a lot of people who do the conceptual kind of thing, it’s not as hooky or tune based but more psychedelic and groggy, which is great too, I just can’t do that. It’s got to have some sass and there’s got to be a lot of changes happening melodically and rhythmically. The power pop thing is real upbeat music with just downer lyrics,” he says.
Inspiration also came when Gonzalez decided to play a few house concerts, an increasingly attractive route for musicians due to the intimate, respectful environment and higher paycheck that can be tough to get from a club gig.
“Basically with these house parties I asked the folks to make a list of songs they wanted to hear and that’s what I did. I would do my songs, a bunch of covers, and the Truckers songs I can pull off,” says Gonzalez, who points out that the shows were “exciting because [he’s] never really gone anywhere else to play and had a bunch of people show up.”
It helps to have band mates who are supportive of his work too. One can only imagine how intimidating it would be to run your material by songwriting powerhouses like Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood.
“Patterson’s always real supportive – he was real supportive about The Bitter Suite stuff and he gave me a lot of advice about how to get it out. It’s really cool to be able to get that back from folks who are a lot more experienced all around,” he says, adding that Patterson Hood is also a big fan of power pop and fans may not know that those sounds even seep into Truckers songs from time to time. “We do share this sort of common ground with that 70s AM soul pop thing, and it comes out every once in a while in Truckers songs. There are Truckers songs where the power pop thing happens. Patterson’s a huge Todd Rundgren fan and I am too so we’ll geek out on that.”
Finding the time to pursue solo projects isn’t always easy when you’re a member of one of the hardest working bands in rock and roll. For Gonzalez, The Bitter Suite is as much a release as it is a passion project, and now that he’s gotten his feet wet in the house concert circuit he hopes to take on more solo gigs while also creating new music when time allows.
“I don’t know if I can get enough folks interested to come out, but I do want to do more solo shows,” he says.
Regardless of gigs, Jay Gonzalez is a die-hard music lover and power pop is one of the bigger stars in his own musical galaxy. “That’s the stuff I’ve listened to a lot of in the last twenty years, especially when I got to Athens,” he says before summing up why he enjoys not just making all kinds of music, but exploring it as well. “I still get excited to find new bands to freak out on.”
The Bitter Suite is out now. For more Jay Gonzalez info and music check out jaygonzalez.com!