Jim McTurnan does not seem like someone who would put out an album called Joie de Vivre.
McTurnan is just not the type you usually find espousing the joy of living. Cat-A-Tac, his previous band, was a consciously dour affair, and McTurnan spent some formative years living in England, where he developed a wry sense of humor. These days, he's working as a lawyer — hardly a free-spirited profession. Yet here it is, the debut full-length from Jim McTurnan & the Kids That Killed The Man. Joie De Vivre, and it's really not a joke.
"To me, music is the part of life where I feel like I'm really living," McTurnan explains. "I wanted to make a happier record, to embrace life rather than whining about it."
McTurnan has been in bands since before he could drive. He had his first gig at sixteen, playing drums for a teenage blues band. They played at a Mexican restaurant, during the set breaks of an old group with a regular time slot. But you never know what you might find: That band's drummer turned out to have played with Johnny Winter during the Woodstock era and for Stevie Ray Vaughan through the '70s. "I'm sitting there with Johnny Winter's drummer when I'm sixteen," McTurnan remembers. "And he's like, 'Yeah, you're doing it right, kid. Just keep doing it, man.'"
In Denver, McTurnan rose to prominence in the local scene with Cat-A-Tac, which he formed with a group of close friends. They shared a love for bands like Galaxie 500 and rode a moody shoegaze sound to greater success than any of them had anticipated. They started getting radio airplay across the country and touring the Midwest, where they were developing a real fan base. When Columbia Records sent McTurnan an e-mail expressing an interest in signing the band, he was cautiously optimistic.
At the time, Columbia had the worst reputation of all the major labels, but he figured, worst-case scenario, they could live for a year or two on the corporate dime, touring and playing music. He was shocked to learn his bandmates weren't ready to take the plunge. "All those guys weren't lifelong musicians," he says. "It was a novelty to be in a band for a while, and when the novelty wore off, it was like, 'Okay, that was fun. We're going to go do something else.'
"Whereas for me," he goes on, "it was like, 'What else is there?'"
Since then, McTurnan has passed the bar exam and now works as a staff attorney for the law offices of Wachsmann & Associates. "I enjoy what I do for work," he clarifies. "But definitely, for me, music is still the thing that gets me out of bed."
But now that he's got a time-consuming career and a life outside music, he can relate a little better to one of his Cat-A-Tac bandmates, who decided he loved his day job too much to give it up for the band. "At some point," he points out, "you run out of excuses for being a bum, and you have to do something seriously. I ask myself sometimes, 'Why do I spend so much time and effort on this?'"
Cat-A-Tac shared a practice space above the Great Divide brewery with Everything Absent or Distorted (A Love Story). One day, McTurnan was talking about music with EAoD's John Kuker. "He thought about the same sort of thing, you know: Why put so much effort into this weird intangible thing," says McTurnan. "And his explanation was, there were so many records that made life for him, that he felt like creating music was a way of giving back, was a way of continuing this culture of creativity. That resonated with me."
He set out looking for people who wanted to play music as badly as he did. He saw John Fate playing with the Pseudo Dates, and remembers thinking, "Oh man. That's the kind of drummer I want." He didn't have to look for an approximation — Fate soon joined McTurnan's new band.
"Music has such a profound effect on everyone involved. We don't have a choice," says Fate. "We have to be a part of it if we can, whether it's just playing the tambourine or something."
"It's the longest relationship I've ever had," says McTurnan.
"Me, too," Fate confirms. "Man, me, too."
McTurnan was originally just looking for some musicians to put together demo recordings. From the Pseudo Dates, he got Fate and Nathan Brasil, who started out just playing tambourine before becoming the band's second guitarist. They were joined by Josh Wambeke of Fell on bass, and the new outfit recorded some demos and decided it might as well play a show to promote itself. From there, the guys landed a string of high profile gigs, including CMJ and Monolith. (McTurnan, incidentally, was the only person to play all three years at the latter: Once with Cat-A-Tac, then as a stand-in member of EAoD, and finally with his current band.)
"This band is probably more collaborative than Cat-A-Tac was," notes McTurnan. "Because in this band, everyone adds their own thing." McTurnan considers himself the least talented musician in the group. He'll still sometimes bring ideas for bass lines or drum parts to practice, but mostly each of the Kids That Killed The Man figures out his own way to improve the songs McTurnan writes.
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"This is the first band where I really thought about what it is that I wanted to do," he adds. Learning his lesson from the way Cat-A-Tac ended, he put his name on the band to ensure it would be there as long as he was interested in playing music. "I finally have the courage, after a long, long time of making music, to say this is what I want to do."
He'd been developing as a songwriter with Cat-A-Tac, moving away from slow, labored music. "I wanted to do something that borrowed a lot from oldies," he says. "Three chords, two and half minutes long, a great melody, and it was all about the song."
And most of Joie De Vivre is exactly that: simple, infectious pop. "It's as caveman as you can get," says McTurnan. The album's most triumphant song, "Give Up Suffering," is the same three chords the entire time — the drums, bass, and vocal melody vary to distinguish the verses from the chorus, but the spine of the thing is completely rigid from start to finish.
Who knows why certain music resonates with certain people? What we all know is what it feels like when it all just clicks. You stop hearing individual instruments and voices and instead feel the whole thing as the expression of something true. "I don't want anyone to go, 'Wow that's genius, they're breaking new boundaries,'" says McTurnan. "I want them to go, 'Wow, that's a song.'"