Features July 1, 2018

Jukebox The Ghost: Off To The Big Gig

by Kevin Johnston

NYC piano-pop trio Jukebox The Ghost are no strangers to Colorado. A touring band for more than 10 years, Denver’s 93.3 KTCL was one of the first radio stations in the nation to play their singerly brand of polished pop. Now touring on the heels of their fabulous full-length “Off To The Races” the Queen-like powerhouse plays The Big Gig at Fiddler’s Green this Sunday, July 15th. We got on the horn with singer/pianist Ben Thornewill to see what’s what.

So – let’s talk about Queen. When did this obsession start? Is it an obsession?

“It’s funny – It’s almost accidental and almost as if the world willed it to be so. We were getting compared to Queen well before there was any conscious effort to emulate or borrow from them. My voice would be compared to Freddie Mercury’ s (which was always a huge compliment) which I see as a natural progression of learning to sing at the piano. When you have to sing over an instrument that big and loud you think about range and volume differently. I was definitely lucky enough to have a voice that could do it but for years it was accidental. And then, 3 years ago, our dear drummer Jessie had the idea for HalloQueen (an annual east-coast bash where the band plays an original set followed by a fully costumed Queen cover set).”

“After playing a Queen song here or there for wedding gigs, etc, the HalloQueen show was the beginning of digging into the character (of Freddie Mercury) wearing a mustache and speaking in an English accent – doing my best to be Freddie on stage. It’s so fun. I’ve learned so much from doing it in terms of melody and performance and how much bravado he had. So when we came to making this record, instead of shying away from it as an influence, we were just like, what if we committed and put some sick harmonies in there and this guitar solo?”

At the hands of producer Chris Cubeta, the lead guitar tones and layered Queen-style vocal harmonies are a technically spot-on mimic. What was the writing process like?

“Here’s the thing – when I was writing and recording “Jumpstarted,” (track 1 on Off To The Races) which has over 100 different vocal tracks on it, I didn’t think about Queen at all – and that’s the honest-to-god truth. Part of the writing process was using vocals as an instrument, working at the piano and recording 20, 50 different vocals over each other in about 5 minutes – take, take, take, all the way through – and that’s the way it got written. It was after the fact that we said ‘let’s just keep these vocals – they sound f*cking awesome.’ A lot of the “oohs” and stuff are reminiscent (of Queen) but I actually wrote that as a joke almost. It’s just a ridiculous song with a lot of ‘what-ifs’ and it happened to work.

What’s it like to have worked in that way?

“Freeing but disconcerting. You spend your whole day trying your ass off to write a pop song and then you goof around for 20 minutes and you’ve written something way better. As a writer, letting go and creating for the sake of creating is often the best way to get anything out. It’s flow. It’s natural. it’s honest. Sometimes if you chip away and really work as something it comes out well, but sometimes art responds to freedom.

You’ve been a band for what – 15 years? With just the three of you, through different labels and almost countless supporting and headlining tours, what’s the glue? What keeps you together?

“Right? 10, 15 years? It’s getting embarrassing (he laughs). The glue is the music, the belief and the fans. The hope and belief that we’ll continue to grow and that we’re making music we believe in. We keep saying yes. We keep finishing a record and saying ‘let’s make another one’ – thinking that the next one is gonna be better than the one that preceded it.

“Look at Portugal The Man – they’ve stuck it out as long as we have. When they came out, we were coming up with our band name and were like ‘oh – there’s another Blank The Blank band.’ Now it’s record number 6 for them and they got album of the year (a Grammy for 2017’s Best Pop Duo/Group Performance). There are bands that stick it out. Somehow we continue to stick it out, continue to grow and wait for our big moment.

“But it’s funny – in the last few years, people have started to congratulate us, like ‘you really did it right. You really made the right move by growing this thing slowly’ and I just wanna be like: ‘YO! We’ve been trying to blow up overnight for 10 years!’ (he laughs).

You’re good enough performers and people that you’ve built almost personal relationships with fans over that time.

“We’re very fortunate that we’ve been able to make a living doing it this for as long as we have. We have die-hards everywhere – people who’ve been to 30, 40, 50 shows and those who have been to 5 or 6 (which is also absurd, amazing and ridiculous) and people who are just discovering us now. We’re pretty much ourselves on stage and try to show the gratitude we have for the people who listen to our music and come to the shows. We often have fans saying – ‘I came to the show alone and I met other people – now these are my friends!’ It’s that sort of a family vibe at the shows.”

You’re playing KTCL’s Big Gig at Fiddler’s Green on July 15th. Excited?

“Yes. KTCL in Denver was one of the first stations to play us and it made a massive difference: record and ticket sales shot up, streaming shot up and those shows sold out before any of the other shows in the country. We’re thrilled that we get to play their Big Gig this weekend!

You headlined The Bluebird Theater in May – what will be the difference between that show and Fiddler’s?

“A festival set is interesting because you have to both cater to the people that know you and also play the sort of set that wins over new fans. So it’s like a greatest hits set – you’re just there to sort of kick ass.”

And kick-ass they shall! Don’t miss Jukebox The Ghost this Sunday, July 15th at Fiddler’s Green in Denver.