XPoNential Music Festival Artist Interview: Jukebox The Ghost
Jukebox The Ghost plays piano-driven pop, but don’t label them the next Ben Folds. Jukebox’s approach to the genre is more offbeat and less packaged; they favor whimsical, fictional lyrics and jangly keyboards. Though they’ve been around since 2003, Jukebox has recently been building buzz with their sprawling, buoyant tunes—having appeared on Late Show With David Letterman and played at Lollapalooza last year. Prior to the band’s appearance at XPoNonential Festival this Sunday, The Key sat down with lead singer and pianist Ben Thornewill to discuss his music major, Philly’s concert scene, and why he doesn’t listen to a lot of music.
The Key: What was the band’s original name, and why did you change it?
Ben Thornewill: Our original name was The Sunday Mail, and it was just something we stumbled upon when we started playing in college. And we were very much a college band and we weren’t doing too much. So when we started to take ourselves a little more seriously we thought it was important to change to something that meant something. So we came up with Jukebox The Ghost, which is sort of a terrible band name, but aren’t they all? It’s from a Nabokov novel.
TK: Which novel?
BT:Pnin. It’s only about 100 pages, and he has this great line about how he doesn’t believe in autonomous jobs, but that it’s a democracy of ghosts.
TK: What are your thoughts on the many comparisons to Ben Folds that Jukebox the Ghost receives?
BT: My philosophy on that is that there are only so many points of reference for a piano-based group. If there were as many piano-based rock groups as there are guitar-based rock groups, we wouldn’t be compared to Ben Folds. I think. It’s a not a bad comparison. Everyone needs to stop thinking that. There are a lot of great bands from the early ’90s, like Jellyfish. People that know Jellyfish tend to compare us to Jellyfish, but because they’re no longer on the tip of people’s tongues, it doesn’t get thrown around all that much. You know, Ben Folds has been around forever, and makes great music, so it’s not a bad comparison. But there are better ones.
TK: You were a music major in college. How does being a music major inform your songwriting?
BT: It’s interesting, it’s more my classical background that I think informs the music. And in college, studying jazz. All that, absolutely influences it. The chords that I choose, the arrangements that I make… [B]eing a music major enabled me to immerse myself in music and get a broader wisdom of knowledge. But yeah it’s more specific than that. I wouldn’t say learning music history influenced it, but being able to surround myself with music definitely helped.
TK: In a previous interview, you said that you don’t listen to a lot of music. Why is that?
BT: I guess I get overwhelmed, overloaded. Sensory overload at a certain point. I also feel like I’ll listen to five or six songs, and if it’s new and big and important, then I’ll process it, and then I’m done. I need to take a break and I don’t have any real explanation for it. I don’t know. I just prefer silence a lot of the time.
TK: So what do you listen do?
BT: It all depends. I’ll listen to rock, I’ll listen to classic jazz, but you know all within the realm of not listening to a ton.
TK: Your lyrics are often fictional in nature. How much of your songs are personal and how much are they fictional?
BT: Even fiction comes from a place of truth and honesty. So, you know, I try not to be too explicit all the time. But even if I’m coming from a place that’s of actual emotion or something in my life, there’s a really fine line—and I find that once I get away from the song, a couple years after I’ve written the song, I have trouble distinguishing which parts were real.
TK: You currently live in Philadelphia. What’s your take on the music scene here?
BT: The Philly music scene is amazing. Part of the charm of Philly is that it’s a major city with a fantastic arts scene that’s also liveable, in a way New York isn’t. So you get a lot of people being able to spend more of their time just making music and being creative. We have some amazing friends in bands and musicians in Philly. Fantastic music scene.
TK: How does it compare to D.C., where the band was originally formed?
BT: The D.C. music scene is tough. There are not a lot of all-ages venues, and that was tough for us getting going. In Philly, it’s very much DIY warehouse scene, art show scene. So I find there’s a lot more bands, a lot more accessibility in Philadelphia.
TK: Jukebox the Ghost has gained a lot of buzz recently. You’ve been playing bigger venues and you were on The Late Show With David Letterman. What’s that been like?
BT: It’s the product of a lot of work. And even though we’re getting buzz, we’re still doing 150 shows a year. So it doesn’t feel for us like there’s been some change, like all of a sudden someone flipped a switch. It’s been a really steady growth spurt, the three and half years we’ve been touring. So I don’t know, that’s how we feel about it. It doesn’t feel like we’re the next buzzy band, but it’s nice to sort of to get more appreciated.
Jukebox The Ghost will be performing at the XPoNential Music Festival along with artists such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Givers, Sun Airway, Other Lives, Ra Ra Riot, and many others. The festival will be taking place July 22-24th at Wiggins Park in Camden, NJ. Tickets are available here.