On June 18th, San Francisco Bay-area band The Jenny Thing will reach a significant personal and professional milestone with the release of their third album, American Canyon, their first release together since 1999. Their return to making music together has been built on interesting new modes of songwriting and recording that celebrate an experimental approach while still striving to preserve a song’s essential essence in the process.
Today, we’re pleased to debut the new single “Monsters of Mercy” from their upcoming album American Canyon here on Glide. In many ways this song is so unique that having vocalist and lyricist Matt Easton here with us to talk about the track and how it was created is the best possible outcome, since the song makes a big statement on the album, but also has a different genesis and sound than many of the other tracks. Its story highlights the methods that The Jenny Thing are now embracing and points to a powerful new direction from these four friends who met in college in 1991 and whose continuous relationships have led them back to making music together again.
Hannah Means-Shannon: It’s wonderful that you and the band members have not only managed to stay friends for so many years, but also to start working together creatively again. It’s a very inspiring story, though I’m sure it’s more nuanced than anyone knows.
Matt Easton: That’s a great thing to dig into. I’m standing back and thinking, “This is miraculous. This is the most improbable record we have ever made.” When we were 19 and running around with staple guns, just trying to get a gig, of course we made it a record. It was all we thought about. But now, it’s an option to not do it, and it’s an option to phone it in, to make it a vanity project. Perhaps it began that way to some degree, but then it took on a life of its own.
I feel like the record is still talking to me if you can believe it. I’m listening to it three years after writing something, with the final recording six months to a year ago, and even now I’m listening to it while walking down the street and thinking, “Wow, what did that mean? What do those two things mean when put side by side?” That juxtaposition that you only get from a hundred feet away is what you don’t notice when you’re actually recording it.
The friendship has also been a little miracle. We’ve kept our ties as friends very consistency though logistics can be terrible. We appreciate it in retrospect, that we ever existed as a unit in the first place.
HMS: I love what you said about how improbable it is that you all got together in the first place. Young people often instinctually gravitate together and assume these commonalities, but the surprising thing is that, as time has proven, you were right!
ME: Yes. It makes you wonder if it was some sort of sixth sense that was accurate or whether it’s growing together or setting aside differences. The answer is probably yes to all.
HMS: What were the conversations like when you started talking about making music again after such a long hiatus? Was it a big threshold to cross?
ME: In our classic form, I’m the singer, Shyam Rao is the guitarist, then there’s Mike Phillips on drums and Ehren Becker on bass. That was our Beatles setup thirty years ago. Shyam was in New York for a long stretch until 2014 or so, and we saw each other in New York and out here. Then he moved to California again in 2014 or 2015. That was the first impetus, with he and I in the same spot and able to do our thing. There was a little more digital collaboration. There were two styles we used here: one was rallying around the seed of a song, often working in a room together after one of us had hatched the first phrase or the first two rough sections. Then the other one was for me to have something complete and then for him to really destroy it. He’d break it down into just the vocal and return it in a whole new setting.
But as for why we started working again together, it was because of Shyam moving back to California, but also it was because the material started getting vibrant and surprising to us. That was when we started working hard. We realized something good was happening. The song “American Canyon” was one of those moments because it sounded not like us and also just like us, so we wanted to chase that.
HMS: I heard that the song “Lightfield” also played a part in this development, as one that you let the public hear and that kind of announced you were working together again, though in a low key way. Was that an earlier song or just one that you felt comfortable putting out there first?
ME: It actually was one of the later ones that we wrote, but it was as though we had learned to work hard again. I’m leveling this criticism at myself, but you can reach kind of an “expensive acoustic guitars middle aged adult contemporary” thing, and frankly, I’m pretty competent at that. But I also don’t want to be caught doing it much anymore. There was a moment where we decided to unhook from linear music making and go deeper into the text. Suddenly there was this big space for emotion because we weren’t holding things up with the question: “Does it sound expensive, and proper, and sophisticated?” All that work went into the story and expression instead.
“Lightfield” is a very good example of that since it was probably the sixth or seventh song on the record that we wrote. We knew the song was heavy-duty at that point. The song seed caught us at a good time. Since we were excited about it, we took it all the way through mixing and mastering quickly. It’s also the only song with an acoustic guitar on it, which sort of used to be what we did a lot of. We kind of had a “Smiths-Cure-ending up in Toad the Wet Sprocket” territory back then, so this song felt like a bridge. It’s the guitar song on the record, so we tested the water with it. It also had this sense of yearning connection and in the Covid time, it felt obliquely resonant even though it’s not a Covid song. It’s a song about the body, other people, distance, and separation.
It was also a technical task, to get this through our remote mix person. We produced and engineered the whole album ourselves, running our own studio in my house, until the tracks went out. Then we waited to see if one guy could mix it, and another could master it properly, and then the other seven songs had their pathway, and we knew we could complete an album and put it out.
HMS: I come over from the Garage/Punk/Meta side of things as well, and something I found exciting about “Monsters of Mercy” from this album is that it really reminded me of those traditions. It’s just epic, with storytelling elements, but also ambiguous in interesting ways. In some ways it reminds me of “American Canyon” but is also very much its own thing. Can you talk about that similarities or differences between “Monsters of Mercy” and the other songs on the album?
ME: It’s interesting to put those two next to each other because they are different from the rest in a lot of ways. I would say that they are both musically “modal”, like Hip-Hop. A lot of what I tend to write shows an interest in Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello and they tend to put nine chords in a song pretty elegantly. But these two songs are not that kind of song. What’s interesting about them is that you get all your dynamics purely from dynamics. You’re not going to take somebody somewhere with a surprising chord. You need to take somebody somewhere with the way the beat turns over.
“American Canyon” has an almost Led Zeppelin, open and slightly Bluesy aspect to the way the beat turns over. “Monsters of Mercy” does, I think, have a Punk element to it even though it’s very synthesized. It’s still about, “How fast can I downstroke my guitar?”, even though there’s hardly any guitar. There’s no guitar in “American Canyon”, by the way, which became a little game for us. We asked, “Can we make the heaviest song we’ve ever made with no guitar?” We kind of did.
But “Monsters” has that hurtling quality, and the tempo is so over the top. The vocals are actually sped up from the way that the song was originally made. I referred to the two ways that we wrote, and in the second method, Shyam hacked things up. This is the most hacked up of any song that he’s ever done. It was this slowed-down, almost Portishead kind of thing, with all bass, and space, and crackling. It was made around a sample that I created with my friend, Peter, who is credited as a writer on the song with me and Shyam, though that original sample is now no longer in the song. But when the song came back from Shyam, my voice was sped up 50% and he’d thrown almost all the instruments on it completely. It would have been almost insulting if it wasn’t from one of my best friends.
It grew on me almost instantaneously, I think because of that hectic aspect combined with that silvery vocal thing that feels really disembodied. But that’s because I was originally singing it like a ballad. Then, when we went back to record the song, we couldn’t get that tone without doing the same thing again. I swear I used three other mics in six other setups trying to chase that tone. Instead we had to slow the thing down again and have me sing it. But that really did it. It made those consonants pop.
I also didn’t write that lyric in one second. It’s something like a 14-edit lyric and it has a form and a world that it occurs in. But there’s this discipline and succinctness in that song that you hear in the vocal and the guitar. It makes me think of INXS. I think they are really brilliant because they have something like 17 things in their track, but you’re only supposed to look at one of them at a time. It’s not a wall of sound. They say, “Look at this. Now look at the next.” With that, we were trying to spotlight that approach. It’s time to think about the word “power”. Then it’s time to frenetically try to keep up with those Toms that are like a truck rolling down a hill with no brakes.
HMS: And you aren’t telling the audience how to feel about any of that, which is interesting. You really are allowing the audience to construct something from these associations. It’s particularly obvious on “Monsters” but I think I can see that on other songs on the album, too.
ME: There’s a lot of expository tissue on this album that’s almost all been taken out. “Aeromedica” is the one that leaves more clues. But most of the songs are supposed to be a particular conversation, but then the information about who is talking is pulled out. I think we are trying to leave the listener to sit there with a deck of cards and feel their feelings. We’re providing the deck of cards, but we aren’t going to tell the listener why these images are flying by.
HMS: A lot of the images are archetypal and old ideas, essentially, so they are likely to be universal enough for audiences to find their own interpretation.
HMS: People are also likely to suggest their own relationships between items that occur in sequence. That’s going to emphasize that haunting effect, too, of things that aren’t fully explained.
ME: The space is totally critical because people can’t digest or play with things fast enough if you just keep layering it on.
HMS: Some of what you’re talking about reminds me of early days of experimental approaches to Rock music. Have you always been a band who thought experimentally or is this part of a new phase for the band in this new era?
ME: We are definitely behaving more experimentally now than we did in our first incarnation, so to speak. I think part of it is the setting now. We so frequently would stand there with the same instruments and move the songs along, more like The Beatles, in the past. I think, text-wise I’ve always been experimental. Shyam’s orientation is toward light destruction and dismantling, creating succinctness and essentialism.
I’m probably the most traditional member of the band, and the most likely to sit at a piano and play a traditional song with a beginning, middle, and end. There’s a lot of exchange, meaning moving material back and forth, amongst us, on this subject. It’s kind of cyclical. I’m always trying to make sure that things hold up. I often say, “Does this thing actually work? Does this song hold together? Could you teach it somebody?” Because when you’re very experimental, you may no longer be able to turn to a person and say, “It has these four chords, it has this tempo, and this is the melody.” At a certain point, the content won’t fit the form anymore.
But I am checking that around the house, asking, “Does ‘Monsters of Mercy’ still work on the piano?” But there’s also a healthy tension with that across the band, asking, “How far out can we get with that, and the thing still holds together?” Experimentalism is super-motivating and inspiring, and we did not find a limit to how destructive we could be while still continuing to sound like us. We try not to be afraid of aiming for one thing and hitting something completely different, because that’s not failure. That’s a third thing and we just chase it.