Jumbling Towers “Only the power of prayer can bring you through to the next project without bitterness.”

Since Jumbling Towers self-released their eponymous debut album two years ago, the band has found itself occupying a curious domain within the independent music scene. While they have indeed travailed through the limitations most unsigned acts find unavoidable, the band has nonetheless managed to establish a fan base extending far beyond the borders of their St. Louis hometown. After last year's release of Classy Entertainment, a fantastic little EP, the band is set to unleash another two new songs on 7-inch vinyl, only this time with the incalculable support of a label.

Bassist Nate Drexler and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Joe DeBoer were kind enough to provide insight, via e-mail, into the joys of operating as a truly independent band as well as discourse upon the unusual concept that informs their upcoming full-length.

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Congratulations on the impending release of your new 7” single. How did the logistics of your working with United Kingdom-based Half Machine Records come about?

Nate: I moved to Chattanooga in August of 2008, which was about the time when we started putting “Kanetown” together. As time went on I started getting tracks from Joe and Dmitri, who were working diligently on this new music (which I enjoyed). Meanwhile, I was in a relatively absurd relationship with a girl there that was bringing me extremely close to wits' end (she started dating a chubby dude). And when the chick I'm with starts to date a chubby dude and I'm at wits' end, it's high time for a record deal. So I went to the XL website's "General Inquiries” box and asked if I could send "The Kanetown City Rips". Messages like this usually get a sarcastic, "Yeah, send it. If we like it, what should we do? Finance your band?" or the no-reply. But this time, after agreeing to listen, I sent it and they said, "We'd like to put out a 7” on Half Machine, which runs out of this office." Quick. No joke. Pretty sweet. Way better than our standard label send-off of, "We like your music but don't want to work with you… ever… no matter what. Bests!" We've gotten that one a lot.

So did you have the benefit of any prior networking or was there anything that drew you to XL specifically? Or was your e-mail just a shot in the dark?

Nate: To properly answer this question, we should give a summary of our label networking experience with the intent to help other bands who may go down a similar road. So, like, three weeks after we became a band in 2005 we thought we were in a good position to start sending demos to labels because that's what you do. Then, we figured, if they like you, which they surely will because you like you, they'll send you a check for around $100,000, a three-album contract in PDF format that you just need to print and sign, and the deed to a studio apartment in Brooklyn. Then, you just sit around and write records and the hot neighbor chicks who live below, above, and to the side of you, who also like art, always drop by and ask if they can hear a "rough" or sketch in a tank top while you play instruments. Turns out none of this ends up being the reality. Instead you get a few nice replies from small indie labels with minor praise followed by "but not good enough to work with you." Then, they give you the green light to send any future stuff, and generally give the same reply to everything that you send, except with slightly stronger adjectives (like "This is really great," instead of "This is good"). That's been going on for four years. And now it's gotten to the point that they'll really mess with us and say stuff like "We like this… But we REALLY liked your first LP." (Well, why didn't you do anything with that, bro??!??!) All that is to say, yes, the XL to Half Machine connection was a complete shot in the dark (we had never sent them anything), so the lesson is that if a label really wants to work with you, they'll apparently make a move right away. We also attribute our signing to the fact that it's much less intimidating picturing a jolly British dude listening to your music over a scowling, bearded New Yorker in a flannel. I mean, seriously. You send your stuff to a label dude in America, he probably lives in New York or Portland, and you can literally feel his big beard through the computer monitor. You're, like, afraid to click the send button in fear that he will see your name in his box and just scowl and get angry. But picturing a few kind British dudes sitting in an office drinking lattes and giggling about a silly David Byrne melody is really relieving.

Now that the band has taken both routes towards marketing your music (self-releasing your debut LP and now releasing the 7” via a label), what have you found to be the upsides and downsides to each? Have you resolved to release future efforts by only one means or the other after both experiences?

Nate: There's really no upside to self-releasing: it ends up feeling like you're releasing nothing to no one because no one knows a thing about it (unless you somehow reach Clap Your Hands Say Yeah-status, in which case self-releasing is fabulous, but how often does that happen?). Sure, you get to keep the couple hundred bucks (split four ways) that you make over the following four to nine years, but that doesn't make up for the internalized angst. Only the power of prayer can bring you through to the next project without bitterness.

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"And for the record, if Jeff Tweedy asked me to get a beer with him I'd lie and say I didn't write what I just wrote and that I love the new camel record."
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How is the new LP coming along?

Joe: It's just about finished, and we can say with confidence that it's easily the best unreleased record that we're aware of. Everything was sounding really fresh when we started recording so we put this little spin on it: the story of these early-teen kids forced to inhabit an abandoned industrial hub of some sorts in the early eighties (lot of half-broken gear from that era, and we're never going to have 2009 digital polish in our recordings so it made sense). That said, the record is all from our made-up kids' perspectives, and hopefully sounds authentically like the world and time period we were trying to create/recreate: full of early drum machine sounds, dirty analog synths and memorable (we hope) pop melodies. When I write down the concept, it kind of sounds like a nine-year-old's idea for a movie or a Newsies meets Hook spin-off (anyone want that to be made besides me?), but it worked for us. Hopefully, people will be able to picture this little world when they listen, but if it doesn't work they can just look at the album cover and eat mushrooms.

So the entire record is based upon that concept? Did that idea stem entirely from your imagination(s) or is there some background to it?

Joe: The concept actually stemmed from one of the first rough tracks we were recording. It just sounded (to our unrefined ears, of course) like something not 2000s (due in part to our lack of studio polish) yet fresh, not related to an actual era in music history, like a collection of songs from a yet-to-be discovered place that were lost in the archives of musical history. Whether or not that's the case, it gave us a good foothold on where we wanted to go. So, after deliberating, we decided that it sounded like a song some orphaned street kids would have made in the early eighties, somewhere that no one knew about. And, thus, the concept was derived. From that point on we just let the story go farther, and everything we'd write would have a Kanetown backstory, like the singles, for example. The title track (mainly the third movement) was to be the sing-along anthem as the kids gathered together at the end of a brutal day around an industrial campfire. Or “Gilberta,” where a group of Kanetown roughnecks jeer a girl named Gilberta who was having a tough time experimenting with what she thought to be high fashion in Kanetown while encouraging each other that they ought to do something about their current life status.

It seems like several – if not most – of your songs follow a narrative or story line. If so, is that broader conceptual essence of these new songs just the natural progression from your narrative songwriting style?

Joe: I guess the backdrop of the concept just provided new narratives to follow within this weird, newly created world, which was much more fun than classic, apathetic Generation Y storytelling and vague referencing, which is pretty much what I've done in the past. It actually made life easier as a lyricist because whatever word sounded right or had the right attack could easily become relative to the world of Kanetown and generally allowed for more simple phrasing and more accessibility. I think, like, "Can I use that? That's kind of bad and if this were a first-person perspective I'd hate it, but I like the phrasing." Then I'd answer myself, "Yeah, I can use it. It's the kids of Kanetown writing it. It's cool. They're not grammatically polished or overly articulate." (I'm sure the test of time will find some of that logic regrettable, but too late now). A lot of the LP songs also attempt to deal with personal battles going on in the heads of the kids, things of that nature: a really convoluted but imaginative reality, the way an adolescent would think faced with a dulled, surreal life change where music was the only general outlet. In that sense, it's supposed to follow a kind of a linear, one-day theme of sorts. So things start optimistically, then culminate in turmoil on a song called "Put your War Paint On" near the end and close with a more redemptive spirit and a ray of hope, a sense of God being near to their situation and an exhausted togetherness, as they fall asleep under this urban, campfire haze. Something like that. Maybe this is all better suited for a children's book, but, again, it's too late now, and it worked well for us in finding a fresh direction for the record.

Your music has drawn comparisons to Modest Mouse and Pixies and has been described as “off-kilter.” Are you comfortable with those comparisons?

Joe: I'm a huge Pixies fan, especially Doolittle and Surfer Rosa, so, yeah, that's great, and I know the rest of the band thought similarly at points in life. Black Francis' vocal style was obviously influential in the early singing style of the self-titled songs. I remember how cool “Debaser” sounded the first time I heard it: you were expecting a normal singing melody and instead you had Black ripping, "Got me a movie/I want you to know." That probably changed the game for me as far as realizing that a good vocal line doesn't have to be composed of real notes. I guess David Byrne and Lou Reed would get credit for that as well, but when you're young and you can't sing at all, that can definitely give you some hope. Like, "I don't need to know how to sing, just how to make my voice do something cool that contributes." Modest Mouse I've never really gotten into, but if Isaac Brock asked me to have a beer with him I'd for sure buy the whole back catalog and find things I liked about it beforehand.

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"When I write down the concept, it kind of sounds like a nine-year-old's idea for a movie or a Newsies meets Hook spin-off (anyone want that to be made besides me?), but it worked for us."
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Is that “off-kilter” aspect part of a specific aesthetic that you strive to achieve in your songwriting process? Do these descriptions fit what you hope to eventually accomplish during the beginning stages of writing a song?

Joe: We certainly don't want to put out anything unoriginal. That's goal number one. Goal number two is to wear suits in public so people will respect us. To answer the writing question, yes, but in opposite order. First, [we] try to write a good song, then we jackknife it. Not that that's an original formula… Though, on that note, it's too bad that Wilco forgot about that formula after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And for the record, if Jeff Tweedy asked me to get a beer with him I'd lie and say I didn't write what I just wrote and that I love the new camel record.

Single “The Kanetown City Rips” sounds a little more straightforward and, at least for this listener, more catchily singable than some of your past efforts. Was this a conscious decision that informed the songwriting process?

Joe: I never really have an intent when I write; just whatever starts working I go with. [I] certainly had no intent to write more straightforward pop. In fact, if any, the goal was to get weirder and more accessible. So, despite more straightforward melodies, I hope it still all sounds weird and jacked-up to people. But if not, maybe Universal will come knocking with crates full of money and we can just sell out.

And will you be self-releasing the new record as you did with your 2007 debut, or will it have label backing?

Nate: As of now there is no backing for the new record, but we haven't really pitched it yet. The Half Machine deal is just for the 7", and the hope is that someone out there will hear those songs and ask us if we have any other songs, and we can be like, "Yeah, man, we've got this record." But of course the reality of it is that we very well may be self-releasing again. The good news this time is that regardless of what happens, we've already moved on to the next record so we won't have to sit around logging into PayPal. Logging into PayPal can be fun, though. What you need to do is get a group of buddies and pool about $200 in and keep it circulating. Then everyone can "feel the wealth" at one point or another depending on how much action your account gets at a particular time.

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"And now it's gotten to the point that they'll really mess with us and say stuff like "We like this… But we REALLY liked your first LP." (Well, why didn't you do anything with that, bro??!??!)"
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For a band of Jumbling Towers' stature, your 2007 self-titled LP was fairly successful. Did you anticipate this?

Joe: We were actually pretty naive, and since we all loved the record, we figured it'd blow up and we'd be music legends overnight. Then, slowly, we realized that was overly ambitious and [we] became grateful that anyone was willing to listen, and, in some cases, give us positive feedback.

Since the release of that record and the national recognition that it yielded, has the band's philosophy or approach to making music shifted significantly?

Joe: The songwriting process is definitely different, but not because of anything relating to the 2007 release. We simply had way more time back then because we were, like, twenty when we wrote most of it and void of responsibilities. So now, there's very little time wasted out of necessity. I usually write a melody and have a few instrumentation options, then after a few weeks of honing, it gets brought into the studio where Dmitri lays down a beat if it calls for it, which he has sick skills to do in three to five minutes usually, and then we build on it. Sometimes the song's done in a night; sometimes it's revisited again and again over 6 months. Back in the day we used to just get together and play in a storage unit: write all the parts live, etc., which obviously yielded the high-energy output of the self-titled album. If it didn't pop in the storage space, we usually just trashed it, which was probably kind of dumb, because it only “popped” if it was freakishly energetic, so we likely missed recording some good, more subtle songs back then. We were also playing, like, 10 shows a month then, so anything new we played live right away, and if it didn't get a great reaction it went into the "song garbage can." Again, in retrospect, kind of dumb from a recording standpoint.

What was the logic behind releasing your 2008 EP Classy Entertainment as a free download?

Joe: We figured at least 82 percent of the world would listen to our product if it were free and shower us with praise and merch sales. Didn't quite turn out like that, though. It was more like 10 people quietly downloading it the first day, then eight, then five, etc., etc.

Is a tour in support of the new record in the works?

Nate: We're trying to negotiate a few CMJ shows, and by “negotiate”, we mean ask people we know if they'll let us play their showcase. So, the ideal would be to build something off that, assuming it works out. Based on the timing of the single, that might be good as well. If we do get to tour regularly, it should be noted you'll likely catch us at the local basketball court trouncing fools that think they're hard but don't know how to defend a pick-and-roll or penetrate a match-up zone. Here's a quick lesson for you: it doesn't matter how thugged-out a dude is and how sick his hops are. If you clutter the paint, they can't get to the hole. Yeah, you gotta hack if he goes up strong, but no one's shooting free throws in a pickup game. And we've got two dudes on our end who can spot up from twenty and shoot forty percent. Watch for Jumbling Towers when we get on the road. That's no joke. We challenge any fool. That includes Gregg Gillis, who I hear thinks he can ball…

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