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Posted June 15, 2021 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Synth-Pop Act The Jenny Thing Reunites for First Album in 20+ Years

The Jenny Thing
The Jenny Thing

A synth-pop band inspired by Brit acts such as the Smiths and New Order, The Jenny Thing came together on the Berkeley campus of the University of California in 1991. That’s when singer-guitarist Matt Easton met guitarist Shyam Rao. Rao joined Easton and drummer Mike Phillips, both of whom had grown up together, along with bassist Ehren Becker. The group cut its debut album at Live Oak Studio in Berkeley, and that release went on to became the best-selling independent album of the year at Berkeley’s Rasputin Records. 

The group would then disband after delivering 1999’s Nowhere Near You

Five years ago, however, all the band members were living in Northern California again, and they started writing songs together. American Canyon features that fresh batch of tunes. 

During a recent phone interview from his Berkeley home, Easton spoke about the band’s approach on its reunion album. 

Talk about how the band came together in 1991?
There’s two tracks to coming together. In the first one, Mike and I have known each other since age 0. That’s the childhood connection. We were in cover bands and jazz bands and a synth pop cover band when we were in high school together. Aaron we picked up as a friend along the way in junior high and his brother is this huge hard rock guitar icon, which is a trip. We borrowed Jason Becker’s drum machine before he was famous, and he loaned me a super pointy shredder guitar. Compared to that, we’re a bunch of guys wearing sweaters playing ukulele. The actual creative core of the band was formed much later in college when I met Shyam [Rao]. He is the main guitarist, and I play rhythm guitar and other instruments even though I grew up playing piano. He and I hit if off as friends. It dawned on me slowly that he was a musician who’s very different sort from me. He’s very self-taught but technical. I’m formally trained but heart on my sleeve. He’s a much more even-keeled guy and every naturally talented. He didn’t grow up with a band room and drama club and all that stuff. That was me. We complete each other that way. 

What was the music scene in Berkeley like during that time? Would Green Day have been going strong by then?
Green Day was a weird punk band at that time. I don’t think they had put out their Warner Bros. record. It’s weird because the guy actually sings quite well. And I’m talking to you right now like two miles from Gilman St. I’m in the Berkeley Hills here. It was that moment where Gilman was rejecting them but putting them on the map at the same time. Counting Crows was big at that time. There was a lot of that post-metal Faith No More and Primus type of music. There were some bands that were even more mind-bending. And there’s the whole Oakland side of things with Tony! Toni! Toné! The Bay Area always has a lot of everything. We never really joined the scene. We were very tied to the Smiths and New Order. We kind of still are. 

What was it like to make your first album, Me, which you recorded at Live Oak Studio in Berkeley?
I just said to my wife and to my son, a hip-hop Spotify guy who produces music, that it’s hard to make a CD because most people don’t do it anymore. I caught the front end of it when it was hard because people didn’t do it yet. That record was a blast. I do look back and think that we were strangely precocious in our ability to conceive of something, work hard and make it simple enough to chase the muse and do all the logistics when it comes to getting into a studio. We got into the studio pretty fast and reasonably easily. We met some people we are still in touch with to this day on those first couple of Saturday mornings. It was very exciting. It’s interesting to look back and see how demystified a lot of the process is for me now and how energizing it was to step into that world then. It was a moderate and small, but full-on, recording studio that we went into. It was our first recording experience. Mazzy Star made a couple of their albums just after us. In retrospect, it was like we part of a cool thing. They came in after us and Tony! Toni! Toné! and En Vogue and Thomas Dolby did too. It’s a studio in the back of a house in North Berkeley on a street that doesn’t look commercial in any way. It’s a street of big shingled craftsman houses. It was in the back of one of those houses. It was a fantastic experience. Just learning about microphones where you could hear your clothing and that level of microscopic detail [was great]. We met this guy Steve Savage who produced Robert Cray and more traditional music, but he gave us an immediate appreciation for the audiophile and accurate capture aspects of making records. He runs a rock n’ roll school for kids now, and I still use the lessons he taught me. He’s still an inspiration to me and we met on Day 2 at Live Oak Studio in 1992 when we started recording.

Five years ago, everyone in the band was living in Northern California again, and you started writing new material.
There’s some material that’s as old as 15 years. The majority was 2018 and 2020. We did a layoff in 2020. The big impetus for getting the band back together, as fun and horrible as that sounds, was that Sean moved back to California from New York in 2015-ish and we started messing around. The song “American Canyon,” which was around 2018, came on like a lightning bolt. In one afternoon, we realized it could be a record with that at the center. We even ended up naming the album that. We thought of it as the place for all the action of the album. We shot a video for the song in November of 2020, which we’ll release in May. That experience even more solidified this real yet fictional place called “American Canyon.” That’s the thread that ran through it. We were working in the desert, and it all started resonating. 

The bass on the tune is super funky. 
Yeah. I think that’s a risk that Shyam [Rao] took. It’s a little production magic. It’s absolutely a real bass, but there are some things done incorrectly and some editing that took place. At one point, I said, “I don’t think anyone can play that.” The music video director said he would never put Peter Gabriel and Duran Duran in the same zone, but that song pushes all those buttons. I thought that’s a good place to be. It’s both a serious and not-serious epic ’80s thing. 

I thought you finished “Lightfield” first. 
That was the first one that was finished. The way we worked was very deconstructed and non-linear. I spent a lot of time in business and marketing but I’m an English major and my focus was Middle English poetry. I did some poetry workshops with Thom Gunn. I studied with him. He was a fabulous guy and a huge influence on me. We went to write “Lightfield,” and it was the sixth or seventh that we went to write. It went really fast. We wrote it after “American Canyon” knowing it was going to be a real album. We had set a higher bar. We wrote “Lightfield” toward the end, but we carried it through the lyric process and technical process first. It was what we were working on at the time when I had a bunch of bandwidth left and we wanted to test out our engineers. It was like a dangling first single. We said we would make an album and that’s why it went out first. It does have a medical theme to it, and we knew COVID was underway. We didn’t want to say that it was a COVID track, but it’s also about separation and pneumonia and death. It’s the only album where we’re both playing guitars and you can hear an acoustic guitar, which is like the old us. It’s a very guitar light album, but it has higher energy. We wanted to see how heavy we could get without guitar. We fell in love with cheap guitar because it lets everything breathe and makes everything seem bigger. That all came around behind “Lightfield.” It was ready, and it bridges the gap from the old us to the new us and resonates with COVID. We sent it through the pipeline to mastering to iron everything out. All of that worked. It was kind of shocking. From that, we could leak some of that content back into the rest of the lyrics. The album starts with “I feel you now as a part of me.” The last thing is “I feel you now and have touched the ground.” There’s this book-ending of taking off and landing. There’s maybe even a hundred things like that written into the lyrics. At the end, we wanted to sew together and leave tunnels between the songs. 

Will you tour in support of the album?
We’re trying to figure that out. We’re free to do it a number of ways. We have some appearances planned, but they’re just virtual. It’s like, “Does the world really want to watch four people in their forties play again?” We made the record with no limitations on that, which was super fun. We’re working on chill lounge gadgetry and it’s almost ambient and we think that we think might work as a truly live streamed thing. That’s what we’re trying to do. Past that, if we do something loud, it might be almost like a DJ plus-dismantled band thing. It might be a small drumset and someone on turntables or computer. And maybe I will finally learn to really be a front man. I might be better now than when I was 19 when I was hiding behind a guitar then and now I don’t care. We should be able to do something.


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.