Jones-ing for the Evangelicals
My doorbell rings as I’m taking the hot tea pot off of the stove. I open the door to the cold, Oklahoma night to a dark, slender figure on my doorstep. “Come on in,” I say, and in walks Josh Jones, frontman of Evangelicals. I offer him a cup of hot tea, but he declines, shaking a giant Styrofoam cup from the gas station in his hand. “You ready to do this thing?” he asks as he removes his long, black coat and places it on the couch. Josh and I both grew up in Norman. We know the same people and visit the same places. Needless to say the atmosphere of the interview is relaxed; this is between friends.
Evangelicals are the poster children for what hard work, dedication, and creative ingenuity can get you. They started meager and are now on the up slope to what appears to be a fruitful career. Like many Oklahoma bands, Jones and company never took anything for granted or expected things to just simply fall into place. Now, with their second LP, The Evening Descends, garnering a bountiful amount of positive attention, they are set to be the next Oklahoma band to make a grab for a national audience.
SOPHIE ZINE: I was thinking about how when I was a kid, I thought about the music business, and I always figured that if you got a record deal you had made it. It was fame and fortune from then on out. Then you get older and get involved in music, and you realize that’s totally not how it is at all. I know you worked hard to get a label. Did you have that same perception when you were a kid?
JONES: You know what’s interesting about that is that when I was a kid and I was listening to a lot of music, when I first started getting into underground music, no one at the time really said “indie” or “independent,” but it was punk or underground, I never really knew how it worked exactly. I don’t think I ever really understood how the label system worked – why there were bands I would hear about and ones I wouldn’t. I didn’t understand the difference between a local band and a national band. I don’t think I ever put two-and-two together.
I liked all these cool, weird bands that would come through and I would go see, but I just assumed they were like local bands, but just toured. They somehow managed to get lucky and get their music in record stores. I never really figured it out until I was sort of embarrassingly old, like 17 or 18 before I figured out that there were labels, that a label is what legitimizes you, gets you a record, and gets your CD’s into stores. Definitely at that point, I had a naive notion that all you needed to do is get signed and all of your troubles are over. You get signed and you become semi-famous, or known, or respected. Then it was like no matter what else is happening in your life your troubles are over.
You always read about famous people being depressed or having problems, and you’re like, “What’s your problem? You’re rich! People admire you, and you could have any woman in the world.” But it’s like that kind of stuff doesn’t fix or solve your problems, and it definitely doesn’t solve your problems in terms of the realities of being in a band. Getting signed doesn’t make it any easier in terms of keeping it together and the logistical aspects. It’s still just as hard. You definitely stop being so naive about how everything works, and you sort of figure out that getting signed just sort of presents an opportunity. It is better than not being signed, but it’s not the end of your problems. You’re not a big time band selling thousands of records.
SOPHIE ZINE: Did you worry about that when you were signed to Misra considering it wasn’t a well-known label?
JONES: Well when we were on Misra, I had done a lot of research on labels at this point, Misra, for as hard as Phil worked there, it was about as small a label as you can get. They did have distribution, but in terms of a label that has distribution it was in some ways a tiny step up from being a local band. I say that, and it sounds bad. It helped us get a booking agent and get us some reviews and stuff, but we were literally in no magazines, and our tours had small turnouts. It wasn’t much different that being unsigned. But when we moved to Dead Oceans, about seven or eight months ago, it’s been a big difference. This has been the first time in the history of our band that I felt like now I know what it feels like to be on a label.
SOPHIE ZINE: Dead Oceans is turning into a really good label.
JONES: Yeah, it’s turned out to be really great. When they decided to start it I think we were the first band they talked to because it was Phil from Misra who was doing it. We didn’t know if it was going to be anything at all. They have the full staff of Secretly Canadian and Jag Jaguwar, which is like 30 people working there. It actually feels like a real label and that you have people on your side.
JONES: Like on the road, we were touring for so long, there would be a time when we were completely out of money or something and things got pretty tough and there was really no one we could call. We couldn’t call up the label and say, “Hey, can we borrow $500?” We can do that now, and it’s really cool. That’s the first time that’s happened in the history of the band. We’ve never had a manager or anybody helping us out. So, to have that is really awesome. It’s a big difference.
SOPHIE ZINE: You guys added a new member [Todd]. Is that just for touring?
JONES: Well, it remains to be seen. He joined the band recently after The Evening Descends had already been made. I’m not sure what the dynamics are going to be in terms of recording and stuff. I’d certainly like for him to be a creative force in the recording process. It’s kind of up to Todd. He has his own bands and he writes his own songs, and I know what that’s like. When I played in Stardeath [and the White Dwarfs] I had Evangelicals going, so I know what it’s like to try and do your own thing. I don’t discourage that at all.
SOPHIE ZINE: When I found out you added him, I figured maybe your songs were more complex, and you needed someone there. Or, you just had the means to add somebody now.
JONES: It was both. Definitely the songs are more complex than they were in So Gone, and really we should have had a fourth member for that tour. We could only do three of the 80 parts that were going on. But, at that point it’s hard to get a band started anyway, and with So Gone, it would have been hard to get a fourth member. We didn’t have the means. It would have been hard to get someone to play songs that were already writte. Logistically, it’s a hell of a lot harder to be a four piece than a three piece. Each member you add exponentially increases how hard it is to get things done. When we were a three piece scheduling practice was really easy. We could always find a day or two where all three of us could meet up. Touring was easy. There is a lot of scheduling that goes into that stuff. I found out by just adding one person, it’s been infinitely more difficult to schedule. It’s great for live reasons. We sound a lot fuller live, and we can do these crazy parts better, but it’s just harder.
SOPHIE ZINE: You mentioned Stardeath a moment ago, and I wanted to ask you, if you feel like you can attribute some of your success to the time you spent in that band? I know that being with them exposed you to bigger things, like opening up for the Lips’ Zoo show. Do you feel like that experience helped you?
JONES: That’s an interesting question. Evangelicals and Stardeath both got started at the exact same time. When Stardeath started it was just me and Dennis [Coyne]. It was literally weeks apart that those bands got started – it’s interesting, I wouldn’t say that my connection with Stardeath got me anywhere, got me any connections. Of course, I wasn’t in Stardeath for any of those kind of reasons, but because I liked Dennis, and I liked playing music and being in bands. But the one thing that was sort of a benefit of being in that band was that you do observe a lot of how the music industry works. Being around the Flaming Lips and Scott Booker and those people – the more you’re around that stuff, the more you learn, the more you pick up, and the more you can observe up close how the music business works. So, that was nice and cool. But being in Stardeath certainly didn’t get Evangelicals signed.
And really, the Flaming Lips show was a fluke. We were never supposed to play that show. Evangelicals were on tour at that time, and in order for me to come back and do that [show with Stardeath], Evangelicals were going to have to cancel our Detroit and Chicago show. And, we were going to have to drive back, the whole band, so I could do a show. So, we were going to have to cancel some big shows, especially the Chicago one. Some people on the Evangelicals side, they weren’t mad, but they were like, “Awe man, you have to cancel the Chicago show?” The guys in the band were going to have to ride back with me an extra 36 hours for something that I was going to do. It seemed a little bit unfair.
When all this was going down first I asked Scott [Booker], and I said he didn’t even have to put us on the flyers or mention us, bit it would be something that was nice for the band. He said I’d have to ask Wayne [Coyne]. So I went to Wayne’s house and asked him, and he was real cool about it. He was very understanding, but I don’t know if that show helped us out, or anything. We certainly played for a fraction of the people that were there at the end. For me personally, it was awesome. I mean, that is one of your goals when you’re a kid. Someday, I want to open up for The Flaming Lips, and you actually get to do it. So personally, it was like the coolest thing in the world. And I don’t know, we sold like 30 records that night and went on and played Milwaukee, or something, the next night. But personally it was really, really awesome.
But as far as being in Stardeath, I don’t think that really got me anything. People think that. Some people think that being around that stuff gets you things, that it gets you places. Certainly, I think the most important thing that it gets you is a realistic view of how the music industry works.
SOPHIE ZINE: Some Experience?
JONES: Some experience, yeah. And some views on how the industry works. I enjoy that kind of stuff, to see how things work. It’s fun.
SOPHIE ZINE: I hear things that are familiar in your guitar style, but at the same time I feel like the delivery is really unique. I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, and I think I was like most young boys: when you’re a kid and you pick up a guitar, and you pretend you’re someone else. Who did you pretend you were when you were a kid and you first started playing guitar?
JONES: When I first started playing, it was really unfortunate. I started when I was twelve, and Kurt Cobain was huge. At the time there was this punk rock ascetic towards the whole thing, and it was a virtue to not know how to play the guitar very well. I read every Kurt Cobain interview I could find, and he would say that he didn’t know how to play guitar and that he was a shit guitar player. So, when I started playing guitar I was like, “Fuck it, I don’t need to know how to be a good guitar player. I’m bad, and that makes me cool.” So, for the first six months, I was on that trip. Then, when I would tell people that I play guitar, people would ask me to play a song, and I just started getting embarrassed because I would say I know how to play, but I really didn’t.
Then I started finding guitar idols. One of my big ones was Billy Corgan who is an underrated guitar player I think. Willie Nelson was a big influence. The melodies of his solos and the phrasing of his guitar work I think are really fantastic. Of course, I wanted to emulate Ronald Jones early on. I went out and bought as many weird effects pedals that I could get a hold of. Those are some early ones. As it went on, I became interested in becoming a good guitar player. There weren’t that many good ones in indie rock, and I wanted to be one. Like I said, I was constantly embarrassed. On my mom’s side of the family there are a lot of musicians, and we would gather around for Christmas, and they would ask me to play this or that, and I couldn’t play anything. I was saying I was a guitar player, but I really wasn’t. So, I spent a few years practicing a lot and trying to get good. I think on the new record Brian May was a big influence. There is a lot of harmonizing and stiff going on.
SOPHIE ZINE: There are a lot of parts on The Evening Descends that made me think of David Gilmour.
JONES: Yeah, yeah. There is definitely some David Gilmour stuff for sure.
SOPHIE ZINE: Even your song structure is really different. How do you start writing a song?
JONES: It depends every time. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting around with a guitar and something will magically pop into my head as I’m strumming the guitar. Other times, if I feel like I have writer’s block or something – for me, writer’s block has always been an easy thing to get over, because if I feel like I have it, I’ll just find a song that I like a whole lot and try to rip it off – I’ll just try to write a song just like it, and I usually end up failing in such a way that it ends up sounding like something I did. I’ll try to emulate something, but whatever filters it goes through in my mind it comes out not sounding like the original. I remember, we were writing a song for the new record, “Skeleton Man,” and I was listening to a lot of Velvet Underground. I was trying to rip off “Heroine” at the time. The song sounds nothing like “Heroine.” So, I failed in that regard, but that’s how “Skeleton Man” came around. I was trying to rip off a Velvet Underground song and completely missed the mark.
SOPHIE ZINE: In your lyrics, you’re always trying to tell a story, but at the same time it’s kind of cryptic. What kind of things do you write songs about?
JONES: It all depends. On The Evening Descends there’s a lot of, it kind of follows a theme of broken down, busted people who have fucked up in their lives, and they’re trying to fix them. One of the guys is contemplating suicide, one’s just getting out of jail. One interesting thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is that people have a lot of problems in their lives, but a lot of their problems can be attributed to sort of a consequence of their upbringing. Behaviors are cyclical, and people repeat the things that their parents did. So often you see people doing things, and you almost pity them for not having a choice. I wouldn’t pity a person who rapes people or beats their wife, but at the same time you almost feel sorry for them in the sense that maybe they’re victims of circumstance. And I see this a lot in people I know. They’re sort of mirroring things that maybe their dad or their mom did, and it’s unfortunate. A lot of people don’t have the resources, for whatever reason, to figure out how to fix that, to keep that kind of stuff from happening.
SOPHIE ZINE: Are these people you know?
JONES: Sometimes, or I’ll read about it. A lot of times I’ll see it on TV or Msnbc.com. You there is bad shit happening everyday – sometimes it’s people I know, sometimes it’s me. I see people trying to fix problems, I see people trying to get out of alcoholism or drug abuse, or whatever it is, but they don’t know how. There’s no manual really. People have to build their own compass and decide what’s right for them and their life, and that’s part of life. These people [in my songs] have problems, and they’re trying to fix them and they don’t know how; it’s dark.
SOPHIE ZINE: You told me a story once – I asked you about the kind of people that approach you after a show – I think you told me that it was almost always older men. I thought that was funny, and I was wondering if you get approached by creepy, old men still.
JONES: I don’t know if we’ve toured since you asked me that. So, I wouldn’t say they’re creepy, I just feel like those people, well.. it’s hard to say, especially on So Gone – I don’t know so much on this record – So Gone had a sort of a 90’s vibe. A lot of people who liked us were 18 in 1992. So, putting them in there 30’s, or maybe they were 25 in the 1992. We had a lot of older fans who told us we sounded like Dinosaur Jr. or early 90’s Flaming Lips. Those are the guys who would come up and tell us we were cool. Those guys were cool and were generally interested in music a lot of the time.
They usually do something, like write for somebody or own a record store. These guys are cool to talk to if you like talking about music. But then you get like the overbearing old guy. I’m not the only guy who has noticed this phenomenon. This may be true for all bands or a lot of bands. When I was working as a roady for the Mooney Suzuki, they had a crew called the Men’s Room Five. When they first started being a band in New York City, there was this group of five old guys who always wanted to talk to them, and they would corner them in like, bathrooms. So, Men’s Room Five ended up describing any old guy that would come up to you after a show. They were talking about this in the beginning, and I didn’t know what they meant. I soon realized, as the tours would go on, that there were these old guys coming up and cornering them. So, maybe older guys just aren’t intimidated, so they go up and talk. But it’s never the 19-year-old hot girls that come up. (Laughs.) It’s always the 38-year-old dudes smoking a pipe or something who wants to talk to us.
SOPHIE ZINE: One thing that I thought was really cool about the new record is that you were really generous with the space, and you gave a lot of room to list Oklahoma bands that you’re into, and even gave a shout out to Oklahomarock.com. What made you guys decide to do that?
JONES: I think I had the inspiration to do that whenever I was going through an old Chainsaw Kittens record and I saw that they had, or maybe it was The Smashing Pumpkins. The Pumpkins I know had listed The Chainsaw Kittens on a couple of their records. They were big fans of eachother. I remember when I was making that I was thinking that there is a lot of great Oklahoma music out there. I like looking at the stuff inside the CD’s, and I’ll read whatever is in there. That’s one of the things I like about listening to CD’s – opening that thing up and reading what’s inside.
That’s one of the best ways that people find out about good music, if they get a recommendation from another band that some of these bands may be cool. I remember having the dilemma when I was writing out that list. I was certainly forgetting bands, which is going to happen no matter what. And also that half of the bands on the list would be broken up by the time the record came out. But before the Internet, that’s how I found out about bands. I read an interview, and a band would tell me to check this band out.
Maybe I’ll draw some people into it. You know, the more bands from Oklahoma or your scene that do well, the better it is for everybody. The more press the region gets the more likely labels are to pay attention to bands around here. The more likely it’s going to encourage other bands to succeed and have the knowledge that they can succeed. If they see one local band succeed they’ll think, “Hell, I can do that, too.” And it turns into a cool cycle for a while.
SOPHIE ZINE: That’s why you came back here from Austin right?
JONES: Yeah, it was because of Student Film. It really was. I remember thinking this band is doing really well, and I was having no luck doing anything. I thought if they can do it, I can. Helping the local scene, I think that’s an important thing, even for kids right now who are 13 and thinking about being in a band. That’s why I wanted to be in a band. When I was growing up, we had The Chainsaw kittens and Starlight Mints and The Flaming Lips, and it seemed easy to me. I thought if I get a band started, fuck man, we could be on a label, we could be touring, we could be making records, having fun and making music. I felt like that kind of optimism disappeared in the late 90’s around here. A new band hadn’t sprung up in a long time. It was kind of depressing.
Younger people or your peers in other bands around you succeed, even if it’s a competition, it’s great and it helps everybody up. The more one band gets famous, I mean look at Montreal right now. How many killer bands come from Montreal right now, and how many people are going to be more open to listening to a band because they’re from Montreal? Once you have The Unicorns and The Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, and a billion other ones, all those bands are getting signed. And that helps everyone there out.
SOPHIE ZINE: Do you think being from Oklahoma humbled you in that sense, too? I feel like band here have to work twice as hard as bands in places like L.A.
JONES: I think in some ways you do. Although I think that the Internet has been the great equalizer in that sense. I think if you are happy in a place there is no reason to move anywhere for career reasons these days, in terms of being in a band. You really can do it anywhere. I know there is a lot of good healthy competition in Oklahoma right now. A lot of bands are starting to have good things happen to them, or are on the verge of having good things happen to them. It seems like any number of bands could be the next big thing. That’s a great thing. It kind of keeps everyone on their toes. It’s like, well, if I slack off, or I don’t make a record here, this other band is going to be there. I think that’s a good thing. It keeps everyone hungry, for lack of a better word.
SOPHIE ZINE: Yeah it’s great. I feel like even when the Lips and the Kittens were doing their thing, I still feel like this is the best time to be a band from Oklahoma.
JONES: I do, too. I think right now, I think you’re right. There are a lot of bands right now that will have success in the next year. It’s already sort of there. It’s just a matter of time. But then there are a lot of bands who don’t. With a band there is this sort of momentum problem being a band in a small town. Whenever there is a new band and everybody likes them, there is this flurry of excitement. They can ride that out for a while. Then, the first thing you do when you have a band is you play some shows and you try to make a record or an EP. That’s what your goal is and you work until you get that record. But then, once you put it out locally, there’s a problem. This is where you have the momentum crisis. That’s what you’re working for, that’s what you get to. You have this awesome CD release show, an after party. You’re in The Gazette and all the papers. It’s like “Yeah, we’ve got a CD out!” But then what happens? It’s a big problem. And this is where most bands start freaking out and realize, “Oh shit. What do we do now?”
If nothing happens with that record it’s like back to the grindstone. What do you do then? I guess you start on the second record? But you don’t have too much enthusiasm or optimism usually because you’ve been through the cycle once, and you know how it works. The CD release show can be the beginning and the end for a lot of local bands. That’s why most local bands will only put out one CD. It’s like “CD release! All right, here it is!” then it’s like wa wa waaa. The next day, once all the press has happened, you sell 40 CD’s. But we printed up a 1,000. We took them to Guestroom and to Size. You check back every week, and you’ve sold five. That’s what happened when we put out So Gone for the first time. I went through that. We made it, and self-released it. It’s like working to get the record out, working to get the record out, CD release show, yes! The CD’s out! When So Gone came out we sold ten at the CD release show. Ten. That’s it. That’s pathetic. You know what I mean? Like ten? Really? You have a hundred people there, and you sold ten CD’s? I think total, the time that record was out, locally we sold like 75 of them. That’s kind of pathetic. You print up 1000. You have boxes of them sitting in your room. I was like, well this isn’t going to work.
That’s when we started sending CD’s out to anybody and everybody. I think that’s an important thing for local bands to do. You’ve gotta send that CD out, man. I hear people say, “Well, we sent out CD’s to 15 labels.” That’s not going to work, man. We sent out CD’s to 100 labels by ourselves, and we had Scott [Booker] to another, like over. He’ll do that for a lot of bands. You have to be patient, or bug him a whole lot. We had the benefit of being the first band to do that. He had just opened up the Hell Fire office up there literally like a week or two before I took those CD’s up there. We were the first band that he did that for, and that worked for our advantage. Because at the time labels all over the country were receiving a package from Scott Booker and never had before, that got those packages opened. It was eventually what probably ended up getting us signed.
But you’ve gotta send those CD’s out, man. To everybody. Some people will tell me they sent out 20 CD’s. 20? Those are not very good odds, man. You’re looking at the best you can hope for is a 1 percent reply. Like I said we sent out over 100, again, and we got one reply. That’s all it takes, but we got one reply out of sending out 100, twice. And that’s not including the managers we sent them to. That’s the trick. If you want a band not to die, you’ve gotta continue that momentum after the CD release show, which is really hard to do. It’s tricky. People always ask us how we got signed. Well, we sent out CD’s, man. We had someone help us send out CD’s. And they’re usually like, “I never even thought about that.” Well, Universal Records isn’t going to come knocking on your door because they came across your MySpace or something.
SOPHIE ZINE: Do you have any idea how many copies of The Evening Descends have been sold so far?
JONES: No, I have no idea.
SOPHIE ZINE: Are you worried about it?
JONES: I am. Well, I wouldn’t say worried, but I’m curious. Just because it will effect hwo many people come to our shows, and eventually, we could make some money off of it. I think So Gone probably sold like 3,000. Which was like a victory for us, because we were the last record Misra put out before it changed hands and became something completely different. All the people changed. The label was like on a hiatus while our record was out. We were like the invisible band out there on this tiny label.
SOPHIE ZINE: Where you surprised when that album started getting attention?
JONES: I was surprised – I was really surprised actually. I never expect that stuff to work out or anything.
SOPHIE ZINE: I think the thing that caught my attention the most is when you guys were asked to do a Daytrotter Session.
JONES: Yeah, I had a lot of things on my mind at that time, so I never really thought about that kind of stuff much. It was just something we did; I was surprised. I expected So Gone, it was sort of a demo reel for us. I never expected a label to ever want to put it out. When Misra said they wanted to re-release it, I was like, “What for? We’re working on our new one, don’t you want to put that one out instead?”
SOPHIE ZINE: So, you were already working on The Evening Descends when Misra got a hold of you?
JONES: Yeah, a little bit. The Evening Descends would have been out a long time ago, but I went in and spent about six months reworking So Gone, and then we started touring for it. The next thing you know, a year is taken out of your life doing other things. The Evening Descends, I had originally planned t