Q&A: Ben Thornewill of Jukebox the Ghost

Piano rock band Jukebox the Ghost – Jesse Kristin, Ben Thornewill and Tommy Siegel – play The Waiting Room tonight. It’s the last date of the band’s tour.

With a bouncy piano pop melody, hand claps and the whole band delivering a perfectly singalong-able “Oooweeeooooo,” Ben Thornewill sings about moving past heartbreak and states, “Now this is my turn.”

It’s “Somebody,” the lead-off track from Jukebox the Ghost’s latest album, “Safe Travels,” and it’s a shining example of why the Brooklyn piano-rock band is so lovable.

With two singers — Thornewill and Tommy Siegel — playing keys and guitar, respectively, over infectious beats by drummer Jesse Kristin, the band has gathered thousands of fans who can’t get enough.

Right now, the band is in between-album limbo: a year gone from releasing “Safe Travels” and soon convening to figure out its next step. And, lucky for Omaha fans, with a concert scheduled at The Waiting Room Lounge on Friday, which is the band’s last scheduled date, for now. (Get tickets.)

While the band hit the Jersey Turnpike on its way to another gig, we called Thornewill and talked about the band’s next steps, its rabid fans, folding his classical education into pop music and why the band has an affinity for cheesy ’90s pop.

Kevin Coffey: Jukebox The Ghost is almost always on tour. Do you think that makes you a better band?

Ben Thornewill: Absolutely. I think and I’ve always thought that playing shows is the best practice. One show is worth a week of siting in a rehearsal space. It makes us gel together as a band. We find out what songs work best in which order and it makes a huge difference in us as a band.

KC: The Omaha concert is your last date on this tour. What’s happening next?

BT: We don’t really know. We’ll sort of hunker down and write new music and start thinking about the next record, as incredulous as that seems. We’re waiting to see what comes together as far as festivals or new touring.

KC: So, do you have new songs written or are you just starting that?

BT: We’re gonna start the process. We’ll start thinking and planning. The last record came out back in June and we started recording it way before then. Everything takes longer than you think, so it’s time to start thinking about it.

KC: “Safe Travels” came out about a year ago, but you recorded those songs way before that. Do you guys ever play new songs live before the album comes out?

BT: “Safe Travels” is still fresh. We’re still playing that a lot. Our other two records, we had recorded and had been plying the songs for a long time before the albums came out.

With “Safe Travels,” we were really serious about not playing the songs before the record came out. We’ve only been playing them for several months, so in comparison to other songs in our catalog, they’re still babies.

For us, every show is different an the audiences are changing and growing, so it breathes new life into the songs and makes them exciting again. I’m still a little ways from getting super-sick of them. (laughs)

KC: “Safe Travels” has some more grounded lyrics than your last albums, but it was also recorded around the same time as some serious stuff happening in your lives. Did that affect the record?

BT: It’s one of those things where we went through very human experiences — family members passing away, moving, breakups — and it happened throughout the record-making process.

While we were writing songs, choosing songs and arranging the songs and entered into everything from the songwriting to what we were gonna put on the record, we had topics and themes that we had always thought about but never dealt with head-on. With it being our third record, we felt less pressure to make a massive hit record and it happened to be songs that we felt were more serious.

It’s different because, for some outsiders, we are always called “relentlessly happy” or “upbeat.”

KC: Well, some of your songs have a cheery feel, but some darker lyrics.

BT: Right, exactly. That juxtaposition is something that we stand by — the marrying of darker lyrics or lyrical depth or harmonic depth with something that sounds super upbeat or frivolous. Once you start getting into it, it’s more than just a pop song.

KC: You have a pretty engaged fanbase, and you’re asking for video and photos from them. What are you going to do with it?

BT: The idea is and has been that we have such a highly-engaged fanbase that they would come and videotape themselves or the concerts. Once we get the footage, we’ll make sort of a fan content-driven music video or something using everything the fans put together. The goal is a music video.

KC: And speaking of your fans, have you seen any of the fan blogs such as the “I love Ben Thornewill” Tumblr?

BT: You know, it’s one of those things where I try not to look it in the eye. I know they exist. But no, I don’t spend a lot of time looking through it. It’s probably not healthy. I am aware of their existence.

There are a handful of fans who are so active that I know them by name. They don’t think we see the things they post online and then we call them on it, and then they look so in horror. That’s one of my favorite things to do. (laughs)

KC: You studied music in college. How does that translate into writing pop songs?

BT: I am super-overqualified is how it goes. (laughs)
It has its pros and cons. I was a classical pianist growing up and studied jazz and classical composition in college, so I have this extra language that I never get to use. You know, the best pop songs and most accessible are the most simple.

It’s a hidden agenda of mine that I want to sneak in classical chord progressions and harmonic notes into our pop songs.

But it’s really about writing what my brain wants me to do and then completely deconstructing it.

KC: Have you enjoyed putting string arrangements on some of your songs?

BT: Oh, it’s my favorite part. Whenever I get to flex those musical training muscles, it’s great. I love to musically nerd out and think about harmonic progression and that sort of thing. If I could do a record with an orchestra, I’d do it in a heartbeat. It’s a matter of finding a place for it and still making a record that works.

This is probably really obscure, but have you seen the movie “Walk Hard?” You know that great moment where he’s in his acid phase and he wants to hear the sound of a golf ball hitting a goat, but there aren’t enough goats in the room? I feel like I could end up going there. Luckily the people around me would never let that happen.

KC: I’ve always loved the cover you do of Donna Summer’s “I Love You Always Forever.” The first time I heard your band live was at Lollapalooza a few years ago and you were playing that song, and I wondered how you picked it. It works so well.

BT: On this last tour, we’ve been covering Queen’s “Somebody To Love,” and it’s the first time we’ve done a classic rock song.

For awhile, we were picking the cheesiest ‘90s song that we could think of, and that was one we came up with. We love doing something that’s a throwback and with the nostalgia.

The lyrics, before you get used to them, are so appalling. But we love that song and it goes over so well. We found it completely brilliant. I don’t know who picked that originally.

That song is great because it starts out and everyone’s sort of nodding their heads. And then it takes like two and a half minutes to actually get into it.

At that Lollapalooza show, it was so horrible. I couldn’t find the right synth tone. I ended up finding this horrible synth note and I was so frazzled. (Ed’s note: Oddly enough, I actually videotaped the song at Lolla. Watch it below.)

It was our first Lolla and our first big festival performance and such a big crowd. That Lollapalooza performance of that song was so horrible, but I was probably the only one who noticed.

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