Jamestown Revival: A Turn in, to Step Out Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance Talk To Blurred Culture At SXSW About Their New Album "San Isabel" and Their Love Of "California"
LOS ANGELES, CA- Earlier this week, Jamestown Revival released their third album San Isabel. It is a devastatingly soulful and stripped down meditation on all the feels. If ever less was more, the profound simplicity of Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance’s delicate and beautiful vocal harmonies proves the point. A deliberate and patient arc of songs that makes you want to hug a friend, drink a drink, love a lover, or cry teardrops into that drink because the lover you loved is gone. To unloose San Isabel upon the peoples, Jamestown Revival is playing three nights at the iconic Doug Weston’s Troubadour in West Hollywood, County of Los Angeles, State of California – the same latitude and longitude where this author and Blurred Culture first encountered Jamestown Revival back in 2014. The following interview is from a Saturday afternoon at the El Mercado, Austin, during SXSW 2019, where Jamestown revival played a morning set for WMOT Middle Tennessee Public Radio.
Nota bene: I have re-written my questions because in the moment, I was blabbering like a geeked out fan with an unapologetic man-crush on Zach and Jonathan Clay. However, the transcript of Zach and Clay’s responses is accurate and highly representative of the depth, precision, and candor with which they express their thoughts on all topics.
Gentlemen, this is a really cool interview for me because I saw you guys play at the Troubadour in 2014, headlining a show with Nikki Lane and Pete Molinari, which was pretty much my inauguration into a community of sound that stretches from Austin to Fort Worth to Nashville, a community that includes artists who this week at SXSW are like royalty here in Austin. On that evening in Los Angeles, you were in my town and crushing the Troubadour with your song “California” – an absolutely beautiful and powerful anthem that pays homage to a place where you guys clearly tapped into some pretty powerful shit. And now, five years later, here I am in your town, my first SXSW, hanging out, crushing breakfast tacos at El Mercado. So… what’s up? How have the last five years treated you guys?
Zach: Can’t believe it’s been 5 years,
Clay: that’s insane. You know, I think the success of “California” …so, when we recorded [the album] Utah we recorded those as demos. That whole album was supposed to be really nice demos. Because we had no booking agent. We might’ve had a booking agent who was interested in us but we had no management, no publicist, no nothing. It was literally me and Zach emailing people under aliases, like…like… “Hi my name is Bob, I”m Jamestown’s manager…” This is no exaggeration. And we’re like, we have to record something. So we convinced our friends to go record Utah with us. One of em was an engineer. One of em was sort of a producer / engineer. And we just found some dudes…
Clay: We kinda met Nick through a gig, our bass player, and then somebody introduced us to Ed just a week before. And that whole thing just sort of happened like that. And so I think we were caught by surprise with the success of that song [“California”] and Utah. It was of course what we’d hoped for but not what we expected. And then all of a sudden we have a huge label wanting to get involved and take this thing over… and they said all the right things and we thought “Hey, they respect our artistic integrity and we think they can be good partners,” so we gave that a shot and …we wrote our second album. You know I think we were playing with some things on that album, exploring a little bit. Kind of… it was a little bit… almost searching a little bit on album number 2. And the label thing didn’t work out. And for album number 3 we had our absolute and total freedom again to do whatever the heck we wanted. And so from day one, writing for album number 3, radio and hooks and a song being catchy, it was like the farthest thing from our mind. It was just strictly write songs that meant something to us. And it was the most liberated I felt with music in a long time — and the most satisfied I’ve felt in a long time, writing for that album.
That’s an arc that a lot of people go through but not everyone gets through quickly. Some people get stuck in that album 2 space for years. So to get to that album 3 moment, where you reclaim that sense of freedom you’re talking about. That’s pretty rad.
Zach: I think we’re in different places. We’re a little older now, so our perspective has changed, our motivations have changed as songwriters – like what we want to say, what we want to write, I think we found ourselves back here kinda writing songs just as the two of us again, like we used to do in the garage in California, so it’s very harmony driven, more simple songs, and songwriter inspired, like guys we looked up to like the Everly Brothers, and Crosby Stills and Nash, kind of just really focusing in on the vocals.
Clay: But one thing that was interesting with album 2, we wrote some songs based around groove. Album 1 and Album 3 were written entirely around harmonies. And acoustic guitar. And it just makes us write differently. And you know.. I think …and not to dog on our second album, it was just a step, it was a part of our evolutionary process…but album number 3 to me, it feels… it just feels really good. That’s all I can say. It just feels good to sing these songs.
You guys know that I’m gonna publish this and you’re probably gonna have fans say “what the fuck man, I loved album number 2…!”
Zach: Exactly…! So you have to interpret this, what we’re saying…it’s all funny. Album 2, we were on the move. We were moving around. We were playing shows. We had been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to tour the country. So we wrote that one on the move a little bit. So it has more of like a jukebox feel. Whereas this one is a little more reflective. We took some time off. We were writin’. He has a little studio attached to his house. I’d go over there four or five days a week.
Clay: We didn’t play a show for six months. Not one single show.
Zach: So it’s just coming from different places. It sounds like we’re dogging it, it’s just part of the evolution I guess.
Clay: [Laughing] — You know, when we set out to do press stuff, we said we’re not going to dog album number 2 and here I am dogging album number 2. No, I’m not doggin’ it. What I will say is, album 3 we really allowed ourselves to find a songwriting groove. We gave ourselves the time. We stopped touring. We took a break from things. And what we learned – this whole thing has been a learning process for us – how do we thrive as artists? And I think what we’ve learned is really about stepping back. And taking a break. And giving ourselves a chance to get in the habit of creating. Not playing shows. Not touring. Not trying to take a breather after we’ve been on the road for a week and try to squeeze in a writing session. It’s how to become habitual songwriters. And that’s what we did for this album. And we really found what I feel like is a “groove”. We found it. Everyday we were writing.
Zach: And I also realized. I think it’s like a competitive thing or maybe a creative thing. I think you’re always searching for the next thing. So it’s really just following the muse. And then hopefully you get enough of ‘em and you get to look back and you’re like “Oh, that was cool, we were like, kinda in this headspace…and then here we were in this other space”. And as friends – and as a band – it’s fun to have the chronicle of what you were thinking at these different times.
Clay: You gotta sync up.
The song you sang today, “This Too Shall Pass,” did you feel like you were writing that for yourselves or more as a message that you wanted to convey to others?
Zach: A little bit of both.
Clay: Yeah, I was on my way to Zach’s place. We were gonna write at his house. And I got some bad – superficial bad news. And I say “superficial” bad news because it was related to finances and bills and things. And it’s superficial but does suck still. You know, it matters. And I was like “Ah man, I just got some bad news….” and that was sorta the impetus for writing that song. Because I remember I called my dad on my way to Zach’s house, and I was like, “Man, listen to this, this sucks….” and my dad was just like “This will pass, hang in there.”
I was listening as you guys performed this morning and it got me thinking about how so much creative energy comes from emotion and that emotion, it usually tends to be pain and struggle.
Zach: Struggle is good for creativity!
But then it’s not healthy to be in pain and struggle all the time. So I just started thinking, maybe when you’re in a good place you start writing for other people’s pain and struggle, rather than from your own, you write towards, you reach back to help other people up.
Clay: That’s kind of what “Crazy World” was for us. I think we were both in good places when we wrote “Crazy World” .
Zach: I think when we wrote “This Too Shall Pass”, it came from that personal place…but it starts to take on other shit. You look at the state of affairs and what people are going through …I think generally everybody’s got something or other that’s bothering ‘em and so the ideas start to become universal even if it comes from an individual experience.
It’s a beautiful song. There’s something so powerful in the simplicity of the message and the delicate way in which you guys sing it.
Clay: Thanks. Paired with “Crazy World” it’s kinda the two sides of the coin. “Crazy World” is like, what are we, are we parasites, are we doomed? Or, and the other side of the coin is like, you know, maybe we’re just shedding our skin right now and we’re going through a different… through some growth. As a people. And as a society.
It’s a thoughtful and reflective meditation. At the other end of the spectrum, do you guys still like to unleash? Because when you came on stage at the Troubadour in 2014, you were both wearing fur coats – it looked like Boogie Nights meet the Hateful 8.
Clay / Zach: Dude – we gotta bring back the fur coats!
Zach: We’re very much victim to our moods. Some nights it’s a little more somber. And then other nights, it’s like, agh!, you gotta barn burn! You gotta let the fire go. Yep those were good times. Those were fun shows.
Clay: We’ll be back at the troubadour for 3 nights in June. Two out of three sold out. Third one moving.
Zach: LA in particular, I think we owe a lot of everything we have to that time. And California, we were touring up and down but we really got a start out there and California really adopted us – in a lot of ways – and helped set things in motion. So we are so endeared to that place and to the Troubadour, which felt like, that show you were talking about, it felt like this coming home. It felt like this, a nice cap to finally being able to go out and tour the country.
I remember watching you guys at that show and my head is spinning because the sound, the style, the whole vibe you guys had on stage, it’s what so many people in LA were chasing. A piece of Austin, a piece of Nashville. But then there you guys were up on stage like freaking rock stars, looking like you were born up there, and I thought, it’s a two way street. There’s a little bit of Austin and Nashville that kinda wants a slice of LA. And there’s a beauty to that. A balance. Like, where those two worlds collide, that’s probably a pretty cool place to be.
Clay: It’s just like politics man. We’re smarter as a collective if we can actually work together. When we get too isolated and sequestered, that’s where things go awry. It’s like, we ARE more alike than we think we are. We have more in common than we think. Even from the east coast to the west coast and the south to the north. We have so much more universality than we think. And the whole world is enamored with the west. It’s an idea that has been romanticized for decades —
Zach: Outlaws…Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The idea of the west is very powerful imagery.
Clay: We owe our career to “California”. We really do. And I remember the first time we played that song out, we were really excited about it. I remember I came home and I played the voice memo for my wife, and I was like “Honey, I think we wrote GOOD song today.” And she said “Wow that sounds really good.” – and it was just a shitty iphone recording. And then Zach and I did this acoustic performance at this stupid thing and the guy who was in charge of it was like – hey, y’all did really good tonight but that “California” song? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d play that anymore out here.
Zach: He’s like, “Revival, Heavy Heart – those are good, I don’t know about that California song.”
Clay: It crushed us. [laughing] We almost stopped playing that song, because of that dude.
Zach: We were rehearsing at Nick our bass player’s house one day and we’re just trying to think of some songs we could fill some space with.
Clay: We’re playing at the Mint or Room 5 or something. Messing around on the piano.
There’s an obligation when you write about a place to really hammer it. And it passes. It transcends. The way you guys play it. You build it. The way you say the word California, I feel it in my gut. I put it there with songs by Chili Peppers about California and Los Angeles.
Clay: I used to look at California as this thing we could never top. Like, oh god, what if we never write another song as good as California. But then, for this album, I started embracing California for how wonderful it is and what it did for us which is build us a foundation from which to blossom a career. And people aren’t trying to wait for the next California, They just want to read the next chapter of our story. And being just comfortable with what we’re doing, and what we’re singing about and the songs that we’re writing, and not trying write a better song than California, but jsut try to tell the next chapter, it’s been kinda liberating and you’ll see on this next album it’s a lot more …Bob Dylan-y, 60s kind of singer songwriter folk, old 60s folk. A lot more acoustic guitar, like intricate acoustic guitar stuff that we’re really into right now, and just really heavy on harmonies and really sparse. It’s underproduced. Very underproduced.
You guys can do that. Which is cool.
Zach: It’s a little more ethereal. What’s been fun is we pick these different spots to record in. And you can’t help but to be influenced by your surroundings. And man, recording up, outside of Buena Vista, in Colorado, it was …it was… peaceful! It felt like we were so disconnected. Which was a beautiful thing. Everyday these afternoon showers would come and we’d sit out on the porch and have some coffee. It was just really, it created a great vibe.
Clay: It was the most enjoyable recording experience I’ve ever had. Bar none.
Do you guys usually play with the same people.
Clay: Yes. We are VERY loyal to those dudes.
I like how it’s your band – the two of you are front and center – but it’s still very clear to anyone in the audience how connected you are to the other musicians. I feel like I can kinda tell when it’s just session musicians that are plug-and-play and it’s really nice for me, as a member of the audience, to see how close you all are on stage. The brotherhood… it shines through in the performance.
Clay: Yeah, those dudes are our brothers. It’s like family.
Zach: We’ve been through some shit together.
Clay: Our bass player Nick, who’s been with us since before anybody… one time we got the bright idea to buy our own touring vehicle. And at that point budgets were pretty tight and we bought an old Ford E450 shuttle bus, like what you get picked up with at the airport, with the schoolbus door. We bought one of those and completely stripped it out and put bunk beds in it and tv and a playstation, we were like: “We’re gonna be touring in LUXURY.” Well, we didn’t think about the fact that those things are super drafty and we did a winter tour up through Utah and we broke down and it got so fucking cold that night, and we were in our mummy sleeping bags trying to stay warm – on these little board benches that we roughly built out – and I reached down to take a drink of my water out of my water bottle, and I tilted it up and nothing comes out because the water had literally frozen solid inside that shuttle bus. And Nick has been with us since the days of frozen water. We called it the Ice Wagon.
Zach: We used to rock / paper / scissors to see whose turn it was to start the bus. It was good times. But definitely not very glamorous.
Clay: We’ve been with those dudes for a long time and we owe a lot of our sound to those dudes. We’re extremely appreciative.
As we wrap things up, I have to thank you guys for that show five years ago at the Troubadour. It opened my ears to a whole world of music that I didn’t know about. It’s weird, if you’re into a scene, that scene is no secret. But there are all sorts of bands that, until you cross paths with them, you just don’t know. Because of you guys playing that show on that night, I’ve gotten turned on to so many artists that I might never have known about and it’s made my whole musical world so much more rich.
Zach: [laughing] Well, makes me feel like we’re doing …something right.
END OF INTERVIEW.
Jamestown Revival does plenty and they do it more than right. From that point forward, we talked a little more about how the lads don’t really listen to much music made after the 1980s and how they were thankful to have a SXSW that was a bit more chill for them than in years past. Most of it was me rambling about random shit and kind of fan-crushing on the guys. When you listen to an artist and then get to talk with them face to face and have them be not just generous with their time but also classy, friendly, patient, and really open about themselves…it makes you like the music that much more.
See them come full circle back to the Troubadour this weekend for 3 nights in LA.