When Jukebox the Ghost finished its most recent album, Safe Travels, guitarist/vocalist Tommy Siegel experienced something he hadn’t felt with the first two albums: complete satisfaction.
Well, as close to complete satisfaction as he can feel.
“I think every artist who’s interested in improving, when you finish anything you’ll go ‘this sucks,’” he says. “But this is the first time we worked with someone who was intent on it not sucking, which was thrilling.”
That someone is Dan Romer, the producer behind Ingrid Michaelson’s 2009 album Everybody, and Siegel credits him with finally capturing the band’s dynamic on record.
In the past Jukebox struggled with limitations of time and money. The members recorded their first album, Let Live and Let Ghosts, while they were attending George Washington University.
Siegel spent his entire savings account on the album.
After spending some nights sleeping on the floor, the album was recorded in nine days. In comparison, Siegel estimates the band spent between 60 and 70 days on Safe Travels.
And while Siegel says he still stands by every song on Let Live and Let Ghosts, he doesn’t feel like the album captures the essence of the band.
The same problem pervaded the band’s next effort, Everything Under the Sun, which was recorded with producer Peter Katis, best known for his work with Interpol.
“Our record with Peter, I think came out really great in some ways,” Siegel says. “But I don’t think he knew the band very well before we went into the studio. He’d never seen us live. I don’t think he really listened to our old albums very much. So I think he was pleasantly surprised and unpleasantly surprised in equal measure in aspects of who we were.”
Romer, on the other hand, has been a fan and friend of the band for a long time. He was with them on tour when he was playing in Jenny Owen Youngs’ band in 2009 and has seen them live dozens of times.
Because of this, Jukebox vocalist/pianist Ben Thornewill calls Safe Travelsa labor of love.
“Every guitar line, vocal line, synth, whatever, tone, pitch, everything was really carefully selected and carefully played. And that was the first time that we were able to do that,” Thornewill says.
The result is Jukebox’s most introspective and ballad-heavy effort yet. Siegel, who plays in political punk rock group Drunken Sufi’s on the side, shelves his oddball science fiction lyrics in favor of a more pensive approach.
“I’ve been more confident lately in writing more personal stuff, or more traditional personal stuff,” he says. “There’s probably a certain portion of our audience that’s going to be pleasantly surprised that they can relate to my music for the first time.”
Siegel says that on past albums he and Thornewill have crafted songs based on fictional characters and events, but Safe Travels is a departure from that.
“This record has a lot of songs that are directly from our own life experience,” Siegel says. “Whether they are journalistically accurate or not, probably not, but they come from something in our lives, not something we’re imagining.”
Thornewill says there were even more down-tempo songs that ended up being cut from the album.
“As a band we feel pressure to keep doing upbeat songs, which there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “But speaking personally, I’m arguably more gifted at writing ballads than I am at writing upbeat pop songs.”
Thornewill is at his absolute best on Safe Travels. One of the highlights of the album comes during “Devils On Our Side,” a ballad that Thornewill originally considered for Let Live and Let Ghosts. But the crowning achievement comes in the form of the final track, “The Spiritual,” another Thornewill ballad which sees the band’s foray into gospel music.
Thornewill recorded the vocal harmonies with Romer one day after Siegel and drummer Jesse Kristin went home early.
“It’s its own little microcosm,” Thornewill says. “I don’t think our next record is going to be all gospely ballad tunes, but it’s sort of inherent in that song. When I wrote it I was actually going for more of a Harry Nilsson vibe.”
Thornewill says he thinks the mass of down-tempo songs will help make for a more dynamic live show.
“The highs will be higher; the lows will be lower,” he says.
Right now, Thornewill says that touring behind the record is the band’s main focus. But Siegel is already dreaming about the band’s next album.
“I want this record to be the first in a line of records that I say ‘I’m really proud of everything we did'” he says.