This post was written by Hatchet staff writer Ariana Mushnick.
Ben Thornewill, Jesse Kristin and Tommy Siegel lived in Amsterdam Hall when it was called New Hall, where a close friendship around music evolved into their band, Jukebox the Ghost.
Ben Thornewill in March 2010 at the Black Cat. File Photo by Francis Rivera | Senior Staff Photographer
Just over a decade since their days as GW students, the bandmates have released four studio albums and played hundreds of shows across the country. Vocalist Ben Thornewill talked to The Hatchet about Shania Twain, California and walking by the White House on a snow day. The trio will perform at the 9:30 Club on March 10.
The three of you met while you were students at GW. What were your times like here?
Ben Thornewill: We were all in the same dorm for sophomore through senior year. We played at every frat party, benefit show, casino nights – all of it. We worked out our kinks while we were there, and once we graduated, we started touring and doing it for real.
It was always my goal to make it a career. Tommy was a journalism major, Jesse [studied] biology and I was the one who was studying music. So in my mind, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do this.’ I had to talk them out of more lucrative careers.
What were your favorite things to do in D.C.?
BT: I loved living by the monuments. One of my favorite moments was on a snow day and I walked in the middle of the night to the White House and saw it right before they they started clearing the paths. I think just living in D.C. and having the chance to see the city in those more private, quiet moments is awesome.
You’re now on your biggest U.S. tour to date, and you recently performed on ‘Conan.’ How does it all feel?
BT: It’s wonderful. We’ve had a bunch of really fantastic sold-out shows in L.A. and Chicago, New York and San Francisco, and hopefully D.C. as well. Conan was an absolute whirlwind. He’s very kind and very tall.
It’s been a really encouraging tour. It feels like there’s an energy throughout it [and] it feels like big things are happening.
Did you ever go to shows at the 9:30 Club and envision yourself playing there?
BT: I went to many shows at the 9:30 Club, [but] I never even envisioned myself playing there because I was just hoping to play the Black Cat. That was our big goal. I thought, ‘Oh, maybe one day.’
You just released your fourth album, and it’s more pop-y than your previous albums. Did you have a vision for the album?
BT: We always want to try to not make the same record twice. We wanted to make a record that was a little more, I guess, on-the-nose pop songs, an album that you could put on at a party and listen to all the way through. We [recorded] 50 odd songs and whittled it down to the 11. I think from start to finish we probably spent nine or 10 months on it.
Do any songs on the album carry a particular meaning for you?
BT: Each song has its place and moment in history. ‘Hollywood’ is the one that’s the most exciting and most engaging [live]. Jesse, the drummer, gets out from behind the drum kit and sings it jazz style. It’s a big showpiece and I love that song.
You’ve been together for over a decade. How has the band evolved?
BT: Almost indescribably. We’re now approaching 30 [years old], and we were 18 [and] 19 when we started it. So we’ve aged, which is doing whatever it does to us. And from the beginning, we were just like idiots living in a dorm and sleeping on the floor to make a record in North Carolina, and now we’re at like 900 shows.
We’ve been touring for eight to nine years, so it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s a constant evolution. I think fundamentally we’re the same people, but it’s nice not sleeping on floors anymore.
Who is your No. 1 music idol?
BT: That’s a good question. Beethoven? Yeah, that can be my answer. Otherwise, I can only think of like smart-ass answers like Shania Twain. She’s touring again.
I’ve heard you play covers during your shows. Is this a tradition, and how do you decide what to cover?
BT: It’s definitely a tradition. It came from our days at GW when we’d play parties and stuff, and people would only want to hear so many original songs. They would want to hear something that they know. So we’d always do something like a nod to the audience.
About a year ago, I very jokingly said what if we did ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman!’ And we were like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s try it.’ And it kills. It’s one of the best covers we’ve done. That’s how it goes. It’s a joke conversation that often ends up being like, alright, let’s try it, and sometimes it works.
What’s the last concert you went to?
BT: Sara Bareilles, who is an such an extraordinary performer. It’s not only the last concert I’ve been to, but like one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen. She’s so personable and has such an extraordinary voice. It really blew me away. I didn’t expect to like [her] as much as I did.
When you’re back in New York, what do you do in your free time?
BT: This is the problem with interviews, because all I want to say is masturbation, which I can’t say, like I’m not allowed to say that.
I read a lot, hang out with friends, probably don’t go to rock clubs because that’s all we do. We’re always writing, we’re always making music, so it’s sort of like a continuation of what we do and who we are on the road, just we don’t have to sleep in Holiday Inn Expresses anymore.
What’s your source of creative inspiration?
BT: Life, music, stuff. Paying attention to the world around you, that’s mostly it. And masturbation.
It looks like you guys had a great time filming the music video for ‘The Great Unknown.’ What was that like?
BT: Truly, it was an awesome time. We started in L.A. in the studio that we recorded the album in, drove up the Pacific Coast Highway, just stopped at beautiful national parks, set up the instruments and just played and filmed it. It ended with a party in San Francisco. All of that was perfect. The best music video experience we’ve had.
Anything you want to say to current GW students?
BT: Masturbation. No. Be weird. Subvert the people. Subvert the man. Screw with everything.