Isaiah Ross of Jack Swing on Live Music Under Lockdown

Pittsburgh rock band Jack Swing first recorded their funky new single “Whether I Do” in 2018, as an NPR Tiny Desk Contest Submission. (Back then, they jammed it out in an empty coffee shop–ironically, a more common sight now, in 2020). Aside from the lead guitar and vocals, they recorded the studio version live too, so you can hear just how much it’s tightened up through two years of performance and the addition of Isaiah Small on keys.

It’s the first single from their upcoming EP Get What’s Mine For You, and it teases a departure from the late-night garage-rock grit of their 2019 release, Supermoon. “Whether I Do” doesn’t let off the momentum, and it still delivers the fleet-fingered riffs frontman Isaiah Ross is known for, but it’s built on a crystal clear, sky-blue groove made for laid-back summer days. Ross has hinted that there are even bigger surprises waiting in the EP’s other two unreleased tracks.

It all comes at a point of transition for the band and its lineup. Get What’s Mine For You will likely be the last release to feature long-time drummer Jonathan Lightfoot, who recently left the group to focus on other musical endeavors. In a recent livestream, Jack Swing debuted Alex Nelson on drums, joining bassist Rowdy Kanarek in the rhythm section on as-yet unreleased material.

In spite of the ongoing pandemic, the band is pushing forward with the EP release, plus preparing to record a full-length album, and in the meantime, Ross also recently co-founded indie label Walker Records with fellow Pittsburgher Matthew Williams of Brightside. And amid the chaos, he spoke to The All Scene Eye to unpack the future of Jack Swing.

What has life under lockdown been like for you?

It’s super, super strange. Fortunately, I live with my bandmates, and that helps–I feel like we’re in a unique position because we can still practice and work on stuff. For the first good bit of it, there’s definitely been general existential terror of the gravity of the situation, which, I feel like that doesn’t go away, but it almost gets easier to deal with, you know? It was that period where every day you’re waking up, and just, more and more terrifying news–it’s a lot on a person to even try to make art in a situation like that.

Once you get past that initial terror, it was really nice to be like, “I think I’m just going to hunker down, focus on writing music, and focus on practicing.” We’ve been going harder than ever because honestly, there’s not another time that we’re going to have this amount of time. In retrospect, we’ll probably have wished that we had used it, because no matter how it looks, we definitely have asked for this amount of time away from work. Like, “What if we had infinite time to work on our music?” It has provided that, even if it is an inconvenient situation.

How have those feelings and that context impacted your musical habits–how you guys write, rehearse, and such?

For me, it’s been a more manic study in practice. Once I’d gotten to a point where I was learning a lot, I felt like every day I needed to spend as much time as I could working on things. From the time that I’m up, I’m learning jazz via the internet and stuff–I almost got to the point where I felt like I needed to be overly productive. Since we can’t play shows and satisfy that side of ourselves musically, we have to replace it with other things, so I think it’s hard to find a balance of taking it easy as well as going hard.

Yeah, watching out also for mental health in that situation.

Absolutely. Mental health with all of this is super interesting. Everybody is going through a lot, so naturally, things are going to manifest for everyone in different ways, and it’s just really listening to yourself and listening to the people around you–trying to find ways to get yourself what you need while still being able to be a good person and listen to those people around you. So it’s about balance, for sure.

It’s been about a year since you released your EP Supermoon. What is it like looking back on that, especially with the way the world is now?

You know, one of my favorite things about all of my favorite bands is that I feel like a good band has a discography of a bunch of different releases that satisfy different emotions. Looking back at Supermoon, I was in a very different place, emotionally, and wanted to convey different things with my music as well. That record is definitely a very rock, grunge record. I really wanted to convey that energy and that drive, which are still things that I find fragments of in our music, but we have different focuses right now.

It’s nice to explore those different focuses, and there are days when I listen to Supermoon and I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is absolutely how I’m feeling.” I feel like that feeling is still very necessary in these times. I was trying to convey almost an anime-level of perseverance, and I feel like now, sometimes you need that inspiration, that fire-up, but this music is a little more geared toward putting positive energy in the world–exploring grooves and movements. You see a lot more of that with our new single than in our past music. 

I love that image of anime-level perseverance. 

Honestly, I feel like with a lot of music, it’s just trying to create the feelings that anime makes me feel when I watch it. I would love for someone to ultimately hit me up, like, “Hey, I have this anime that I’m working on, and I want your song to be the theme song.” Like, that is my dream for my music. [laughs]

What shows are you into?

I love all the classics. When I was a kid, Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and all those were where I got started. I’m actually doing a big Naruto re-watch right now, getting pretty close to the end. More recently, ones like Mob Psycho 100, One Punch Man, and all that good stuff. I try to stay up to date with it, but I’ve always loved it.

Who are some of those bands whose discographies you look at and think there’s all kinds of different emotions you can go to?

I find a lot of inspiration in older artists. People like Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, you know. Queens of the Stone Age I would say is one of the newer bands that I think has a really, really nice discography of all solid music. In terms of smaller DIY–well, not even smaller at this point. Hop Along has been super inspirational to me, watching their career from a closer level, just in the sense of having seen them play basements, then put out such successful music, and seeing where that’s taken them.

I feel like there are a lot of DIY bands that are doing a really good job, and it’s harder to look at a band’s discography while they’re happening. It’s always easier when it’s 20 years ago, but they’re definitely one of the bands that, right now, is incredibly inspirational.

You did a Facebook livestream to release the single “Whether I Do,” and it was the first time you’d done an online performance of that type. What was it like?

Super weird at first, because it’s so different. There’s much more energy to play off when you’re playing for a room of 100, 200 people, you know what I mean? There’s this level to which it feels like we have to overcompensate for that. Because I feel like with a lot of people, that’s what they enjoy about live shows, is that energy that they get from seeing their favorite band in person, so we wanted to emulate that feeling of being in a basement and seeing your favorite band giving it 100%.

With a lot of livestreams, people have to take the approach of stripping it down and playing it super chill, which I understand, because it is really hard to make a loud livestream sound good. I just feel like a lot of the time, when people are tuning into a livestream because they can’t see you at a show, they want the experience of seeing you at a show. They want to see you sweating and they want to see you going 100%. 

It definitely was a little strange coming into it for the first time, but by about halfway through, I would say we were feeling pretty comfortable. We were in our practice space and just had a friend of ours filming, so it was a very comfortable situation, ultimately.

That was also your first show with Alex Nelson drumming. How did he come to be part of the ensemble?

Nelson actually was the first drummer that I ever jammed with. He lives at my house. We’re, like, extraordinarily good friends, and the three of us play in two bands together. Up until now, a good friend of mine, Jonathan Lightfoot, who I’ve been playing with for the better part of the last decade, was playing drums, and he recently decided to explore new musical directions. It’s completely all good, no bad blood at all, and I wanted him to feel comfortable taking as much time as he needed to explore these things, you know? Because I feel like whenever there is a dichotomy in the band’s ideology, it makes it tougher to make such synchronized music. He was in a situation where he wanted to explore other genres, and it just worked best this way, right?

But yeah, Alex Nelson. We’ve had very similar taste in music for our entire lives and have had very similar musical journeys, so it was one of those things that made so much sense that I overlooked it. When Jonathan told me this originally, I’m just like, “Aw, who’s it gonna be? What am I gonna do?” I’m thinking of all these different people, and I’m realizing that literally in my house, I have the drummer of my dreams. [laughs] It was a really cool situation, and I feel like it’s ended up being what’s best for the band, so I’m excited about it.

“Whether I Do” has been in your live rotation for a few years now. When did you first write that song?

Probably late 2017. It was a period where I was looking into a lot of Stevie Wonder. He’s absolutely one of my favorites, and I was trying to find a way to emulate that perfect–his songs just feel so perfect to me. They’re so perfectly executed. The melodies are incredible, the grooves are incredible, and I was trying to find a way to bring that to a song with a little more rock energy. Almost a Strokes-ish approach to a Stevie Wonder songwriting approach. That was my intention going into it originally.

How has it changed over the years?

I think one of my favorite things about being able to play a song out live is feeling the response to different parts in the song. You can feel what parts really get the people excited and then, “Oh, okay, we can lean into this part a little bit more.” It helps flesh out the dynamics of it. Along the journey of playing that song, Isaiah Small, the other Isaiah, joined the band on keys, and he just added a completely new element. Once we locked things in with him, it was time to record the song, you know what I mean? That was the missing element. We headed right into the studio.

You tracked all the instruments live–what made you want to approach it that way?

Our main thing with that is just, the energy of a lot of new music is something that me and the rest of the band have always had a problem with. You listen to a lot of the bands like the ones I was talking about earlier, from the 70s, and there’s so much more genuine energy on the tracks. That was always something that I was curious about–where did that difference happen? I think the biggest difference is there’s this mindset when you’re in the studio that it needs to be perfect–almost above your true abilities–but to me, a lot of the magic of music is the genuine energy of people playing in a room together. The best that we could capture that would be the closest we could get to this energy that I’m talking about.

You recorded this EP at The Church Recording Studio. How did you find out about that space, and what was it like working there?

We have a guy we’ve been working with for a few years, Garett Haines, who masters out of Treelady Studios and does really, really good work. He’s worked with bands like Flyleaf–bigger names. He’s one of those people that we reach out to any time we have a question about how to proceed with things, and when we wanted to record these songs, we wanted to explore a level that we hadn’t yet, you know? We wanted to take up the quality, so I reached out and asked him genuinely where he thought we should take these songs, and his first choice was Dave [Hidek] at The Church. He said, “Yeah, it might be a little pricey, but he’s definitely going to get it to sound the best.” It was a situation where we wanted to make it work however we needed to, to get it to sound the way we needed it to sound.

What was it like working with Dave on the production?

It was incredible. I honestly have the utmost respect for Dave. Having worked with so many producers and having so many different experiences, I feel like you get a vibe for what you need to succeed. There have been so many times where you feel rushed or you feel like there’s a negative energy in the room, and that ends up on the record in every situation, from experience. Dave was someone who, in the best, most genuine way possible, helped us get the songs almost from pen to paper. It was the smoothest recording experience I’ve had to date.

How does the vibe of this single fit into the bigger EP project?

This is the chillest, poppiest of the three songs on the EP, so it was a strange situation recording it. Me and Jonathan had had this discussion and realized he was going to go explore different musical options, and we were in the process of writing a record, so my thoughts going into the EP were, “Let’s just take the three songs on the record that are the truest to us as a band right now,” which ended up being these three songs. A lot of times with an EP, in the past, I’m looking at it as a small piece of the record, and this is a little more mix and match, but it works really interestingly. You get three pretty different songs that satisfy three different feelings, which I’m really excited about. They’re all very strong songs for very different reasons. I’m excited to see the reaction to it because we definitely do take some right-field approaches on it. [laughs]

How do you mean?

Just in terms of having a song like “Whether I Do,” which is a little more traditional pop format, and then the closer on the record is essentially a classic blues ballad. It sounds like a song from 1969, while “Whether I Do” feels a lot more modern, so it’s an interesting combination.

What’s the plan for the rest of the songs from that album project?

There’s a weird balance whenever you’re in a situation like this. Going into an album, you’re looking at it as a complete piece, so I always feel weird using songs from a previous project unless they really, really fit. There’s always time to come back to this record, but my intention was, “I’m just going to move on and I’m going to write a new record.” 

I figured the best approach would be to go with a new lens, because even with Jonathan leaving the band, there had always been this push and pull of him wanting to explore different things while I was making things a little more based in rock music. Even having this opportunity to write more songs based in that original energy, I was like, “Let me explore a little bit and let’s see what happens when I try to just write 12 completely new songs where I am right now,” you know? Which is also interesting because any time you’re going into something like this, you’re in such different emotional spaces. Trying to write 12 songs now versus writing a record even six months ago, it’s going to be a completely different record.

What has been the takeaway from that? Anything you didn’t expect when you sat down to start writing?

A lot of the time, when I’m writing songs, it’s just trying a bunch of melodies and seeing what makes me feel the most, so it’s always interesting how those things change and what your heart is most affected by. The songs I’ve been writing recently have been a lot more–how would you even say it? Not sad songs, but a little more tender, emotionally.

It’s interesting because the emotions of the new songs, ultimately, are very similar to the emotions of Supermoon. They’re just different focuses on the same things. The inspiration that I was trying to achieve with Supermoon, that pumped-up, fired-up perseverance, that comes from analyzing these low points and coming out of them stronger. This one might be a little more focused on the coming-through as opposed to the end result.

Recently, you co-founded Walker Records. How did that project come to be?

Over the years, I feel like the hardest thing to figure out is just how to do all the things that you want to be done for your band–how to find people to help you book tours, how to find people to help you make merch, all these things. Ultimately, for us, what we realized worked the best for us is to do most of it ourselves. Generally, with merch, booking tours, and publicity, we have very solid contacts to help us, so for the immediate future, the best approach would be to handle it all ourselves. We realized if we put a name in front of it, we don’t have to change too much [laughs] while also providing a new venue to market all of our bands that might come off as more professional.

It’s still early days, but what has it been like stepping into that? What perspective does that give you as an artist?

As far as my immediate bands, how I handle things doesn’t change too much, but it does open me up a little bit more to looking for new music and seeing the type of bands that I would want to represent with this label. Especially with having done all of our music careers pretty much in Pittsburgh, I really would like to assist Pittsburgh artists in the way that I’ve needed it over the years. It’s really cool to be able to work with new people in that way, which I’m really excited for because it is really hard, and it takes ten years of being very deep in it to know how to do any of it, you know? It’s hard to make the money to make merch, to go on tour, to understand the finances of going on tour. It takes a lot of experience, and having that experience, I’m really excited to be able to use that, not only for my immediate projects, but for up-and-coming projects as well.

You say on the Walker Records page, “we strive to turn the music we believe in into the music you believe in.” What is the thing a band does that makes you want to get them out there?

It’s a balance of a good amount of things, because if we’re looking at it like a score sheet, I don’t think anybody has a full 100%. It’s hard to be a perfect band. [laughs] But for me, the passion is a huge thing. I want to see a genuine love for the craft. I feel like a lot of the time, when a band is on the stage, it really communicates their intentions, musically, and the things that always hit me the hardest were people who were so deep in it that there was no other place that they would rather be. Whenever you’re seeing a band on that level, it brings you in, in a very special way. 

Whenever I feel that, specifically, I’m very interested. There are times where you might see a band like that, and the songwriting’s not 100% there yet, or the production on the songs that exist isn’t 100% there yet, but these are all things that people figure out along the way. The biggest thing for me is just seeing that genuine fire and passion for the art that they’re making.

It all comes down to thinking about the artists, whenever we were kids, that inspired us to care about music the way that we do as adults. There’s always this feeling that music is never going to be where it was 50 years ago, or whatever, but those same level of bands still exist. It’s just keeping an eye out for them. Compared to there being 100 famous bands in the 90s, there’s a million bands that no one has heard of everywhere you turn, so it’s definitely harder, but that level of music still exists. It’s just listening and being open to find it.

What’s next for Jack Swing after this single release?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that this week–how to proceed in such uncertain times. Normally, our main focuses at any given time are playing shows, putting out music, and going on tours–spreading it around as far as we can. Shows and tours aren’t an option right now, so it’s how you replace that level of marketing. There’s really no better way to make someone like your band than them seeing you and it being the best show they’ve ever seen [laughs] so it’s like, how do you replace that? Right now we’re just trying to focus on having as much good music as possible. We’ve been focusing on this record, which we should be heading into the studio around July to get to work on.

The rest of this EP I should be getting within the week, actually, so we’re trying to plan another live stream for the official release and think of new ways to publicize that in this strange climate. You want to be cautious and respectful, you know? Even if things lifted and I could have a show in July–if I put 150 people in a room, that would probably be a bad thing, even if I could do it. For the foreseeable future, there’s still a lot to figure out. This is something that bands are going to have to get used to. It’s just trying to figure out how to navigate, to put out music that people are going to care about, and to still reach them.

 


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