Texas isn't big enough to contain Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights. After signing with Atlantic records in 2008, the Dallas-based quintet quickly started making a name for itself across the country, touring with high-caliber acts like ZZ Top and the Black Crowes before releasing Pardon Me, its major label debut, which is brimming with a fusion of traditional R&B, blues and Southern rock.
In advance of his band's imminent arrival in Denver for the Westword Music Showcase this Saturday, we caught up with frontman Jonathan Tyler and chatted with him about his group's Texas roots, his approach to songwriting and the decision to discontinue the production of the band's first album, Hot Trottin'.
Westword (A.H. Goldstein): It seems like the band's roots are still pretty fundamentally tied to Texas. It's where you're from, it's where you formed the group, but it's also where you found your first success. With all the national exposure you've found in the past two years, would say the city's cultural scene still plays a role in your sound?
Jonathan Tyler: It's where we live, it's where we started out. We'll probably continue to play shows there and call it our home, but the focus for us for the last year has just been to travel outside of Texas and Dallas, specifically. Before we started this record deal with Atlantic and before we started on this national release, we really didn't have anything to market to those other cities. It's really just now starting to kick in as far as national exposure.
Our roots are in Dallas, in Austin, in Texas in general. But I don't think there is a "Dallas sound." It's just something that we, as band members, are into. Everybody in the group brings different things. The rhythm section, they're really into R&B and hip-hop. They bring that more groove-oriented feel to the group. I'm more into blues, roots, really old American music.
We just kind of combine those two to make this weird, rock and roll, Southern thing, I guess you'd call it. I don't think there's such a thing as a Dallas sound. It's such a huge city. It's a good scene to be a part of. I don't know if it's the best, but I think it's getting better.
WW: On that note, was it a scene you wanted to get away from, following the release of Pardon Me earlier this year and your recent heavy load of national touring?
JT: We wanted to quit our jobs and play music, focus on playing and traveling. We want to be a traveling band. It was like a slow thing - you can only play Dallas so many times in one month before people just get bored of you. So, we started to go outside of Dallas, travel on the weekends to Austin, or College Station or Lubbock. They are all three hours away from each other. We would just take weekend trips.
What happened was it just started building. We would go a little further, a little further and a little further. We just started adding people to our team - adding a manager, adding a booking agent. All of those things they just started happening one by one. Signing with a record label came further down the road.
It was just a natural thing - it didn't feel like a push. It just felt natural. The more people we've added to the team the more it helped in getting the word out. That way, we can go into cities we've never been to. Sometimes there's nobody there, sometimes there is already a crowd there.
WW: Before we move on to the new album, can you talk to me a little bit about the band's 2007 debut Hot Trottin'? After selling more than 10,000 copies, you've decided to discontinue printing your freshman release.
JT: When we started deciding to write and play, we were pretty young, like 20, 21. We didn't really have any history recording in the studio. We were more of a live group, just kind of playing shows. We've always been better at the live thing than the studio thing. We just decided to throw together a record.
Our experience with music rested in being a band. We really just went in there as raw as you can imagine, doing a recording. We just set up mikes in a room at a studio in Dallas called Base Propulsion Laboratories. A lot of the guys from the band Deep Blue Something, they have this studio in Dallas. It's sort of like a mainstay there. We just go into the studio with this guy Chris Bell, he's done some really cool stuff with Erykah Badu and Questlove.
We decided to go in with this guy. We got all the money that we had, which wasn't very much. We went into the studio for about five days, and just pumped out all the songs we'd written. There wasn't a lot time put into it. It just came out, and when it came out, we put it out. It was just an independent release.
WW: So from the beginning, you didn't have high hopes for the record?
JT: We didn't expect it to go anywhere, really. We just needed it to book shows. We were, like I said, young. We didn't really know much about anything. What ended up happening was we ended up selling like 10,000 copies of this record. People liked it. I never really liked it very much, but people seemed to love it. We had it out there. When we decided to make Pardon Me, we made the decision to take it off the shelves, because we never intended to sell as many copies as we did in the first place, or intended to have it out there for a long period of time.
It kind of was a demo. Suddenly, it turned into that lots of people who had it liked it. It was a really good stepping stone in teaching us a little bit about the recording process. It was a good lesson for us, more than anything. It helped in getting us fans. People liked it; we still have people asking for it. We just don't have any copies of it anymore. The last I saw, you could get it on Amazon for $75.
WW: On the new record, are there any of those early tracks that you rerecorded?
JT: We took two of them. We did "Gypsy Woman" and "She Wears A Smile," which were both at the request of the label. I didn't have any problem with it. Those two songs are songs that the crowd kind of gravitated to. With that being said, I thought it was more of a move to redo those songs, make them sound better ... make them reach their full potential.
We couldn't really use the recording from Hot Trottin' for anything. It couldn't be played on the radio, it couldn't be used commercially at all. We just wanted to do it better. We also picked a bunch of other songs that we've been working on since the Hot Trottin' recording and we put those on.
WW: You recorded Pardon Me last August, so it sounds like it's been a pretty big learning curve in a relatively short period of time. Two years doesn't seem like that long.
JT: You know, we're kind of the ambitious types. We take risks. What you get into when you get that mentality is sometimes learning after the fact about things that you may should have known about before you went in.
The recording of Hot Trottin', there are some people who swear by this record. But sonically, it really doesn't do anything for me. We didn't really hit any high marks. When I go back and listen to it, it almost hurts to listen to. I'm sure I'm more critical than anyone else ...
I think the recordings that we do from now on are just going to be better. If anybody got a first impression off of that recording, they might not like what they get afterward. But it's all good. That's the thing about recording and playing music in the first place ... You learn and grow. The thing about being ambitious, though, is that it's out there for everyone to see.
WW: On that note, then, what are some of sonic high marks that stand out to you on the new recording?
JT: I think there's a lot more texture to it. I think we maintain the live feel while, at the same time, not sacrificing quality. I wanted to hear everything really clean this time around. I wanted to hear the drums being a lot bigger and crisper; I wanted to hear the guitars the same way.
I think that we accomplished that. It sounds like a live record, but at the same time, it doesn't sound like a 1960s recording. I wanted it to sound like 2010 - I think we got that. That was the whole goal. It was really using Jay Joyce as the producer, knowing that he'd do that.
WW: As a songwriter, what are the elements on this record that really stand out? Are there any specific songs that you think show your creative evolution?
JT: The type of songwriting that I'm into is lyrical. I like guys like Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt. I like lyrical, Bob Dylan-type characters that don't need a lot of extra stuff ... So, it's finding a balance when I'm with the band - trying to accomplish that, but at the same time working with those guys.
On the recording, I'm pretty happy with most of the songwriting. Some of my favorite songs on it are "Where the Wind Blows," that last one. I like "Devil's Basement," I like "Paint Me a Picture." They feel different. I don't want the album to feel monotonous. I want lots of different sounds and attitudes.
WW: In the past year, you've opened for bands like ZZ Top, the Black Crowes, Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Have there been any moments where you've felt as if you've arrived? As if you've made it out of Dallas for good?
JT: I think that those things are really cool. They are good memories that we'll keep for ourselves. But I don't think we've arrived in any sense of the word.
I feel like I'm always going to be pushing for something more ... It's good. ZZ Top, and all those bands are cool, but I just think there's way more to be done. I think that people are going to see different sides of our music. It's just stepping stones, new places.
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WW: As far as the upcoming Westword Showcase, are there any bands you're particularly excited about hearing?
I've never seen Ghostland Observatory, and they're from Austin. The Neon Indian guys, they're not necessarily from Texas, but I've hung around with them a little bit in Dallas.
WW: It sounds like it will be a chance to connect with Texas a bit. JT: Yeah, there are quite a few bands that are doing that now.