I caught JJAMZ again last week, when they were playing at The Griffin in San Diego (presented by 91x Loudspeaker and Space Camp), this time as the headliner. Opening for them were two local bands, Inspired and the Sleep and Hills Like Elephants.
Inspired and the Sleep was a very young band, consisting of three members: vocalist/bassist, guitarist/Korg operator, and saxophonist(!). It was clearly the brainchild of the lead singer, Max Greenhalgh, who, besides singing and playing bass, compensated for the band's relatively spare makeup by employing a rather innovative technique, wherein he would record short clips of himself playing a variety of different instruments before each song, then loop the samples to add depth to their sound. Sometimes he would create as many as 6-7 samples, including drums, flute, tambourine, egg shaker, and a vocal clip or two. Whether a song technically began once all the clips were ready, or as soon as he started recording the first one, I felt the live experience resembled the video game Amplitude, where you could hear a track come together piece by piece.
Hills Like Elephants was a more seasoned act, although, not being hip with the local music scene, I had obviously never heard of them either. They would announce when they were about to play a new song, which, from my perspective, seemed a tad pretentious (because what was the likelihood that most attendees would even know any of their songs?), and the lead singer also charmlessly complained about the provided equipment at one point. But, for the most part, I thought they were quite good, albeit all their songs kind of blurred together without leaving an impression. One neat thing, I thought, was that the singer also played keyboard, and another band member would also alternate between guitar and keyboard, so sometimes they would have two keyboards going at the same time.
JJAMZ was what I had come to see, and they were as good as expected. Some of the male members of the band—James Valentine (guitarist, also of Maroon 5), Jason Boesel (drummer, also of Rilo Kiley), and Michael Runion (bassist)—were hanging out at the bar before their set, and what I hadn't realized before is that these guys are all really freaking tall. When their turn came up, the band was ready with surprising speed; I guess they had most of their equipment good to go before doors opened and just needed to quickly check it again when they took the stage. They played all the same songs as last time (i.e. every original off Suicide Pact, their 2012 album) and in nearly the same order, only adding in one new song, "Waste of Time," in the middle.
"Waste of Time" was sung by Alex Greenwald, who mostly plays guitar on Suicide Pact, although he provides vocals (alongside Z Berg) on "LAX" and is also the lead singer for his other band, Phantom Planet. Yes, that was him singing on "California," the theme song for the FOX TV series The O.C. The sunny power pop sound of Phantom Planet's album The Guest (2002) feels, in many ways, like the backbone of Suicide Pact as well, and I was also excited just to hear something new from the guy who sang what is, for one generation at least, the quintessential SoCal song. But "Waste of Time" didn't really sound like "California" (which, in fairness, was over ten years ago, and I'm not personally familiar with any of Phantom Planet's later stuff), and it didn't really sound like any of JJAMZ's other songs either. It was a more downbeat and noisier kind of garage rock. It wasn't bad; it just made for a slightly odd departure in the middle of the set. Also, with the sound smothered by the small venue acoustics, it was impossible to make out lyrics for any songs I didn't already know, making it harder to appreciate anything new to me. You can hear a YouTube capture (courtesy of slothitronic) of a previous performance from last year here, which is probably clearer and less heavy than what I heard live.
They also performed their other new song not on the album, "Ceremony," which kind of hits at the opposite end of their sound spectrum. Sung by Z Berg, it's very catchy, although it also doesn't fit perfectly with the dreamily melancholic summer sound of JJAMZ's other songs. Sassy and flamboyant, with different production it could pass for one of the retro pop tracks from the second iteration of Z Berg's girl group, The Like.
Of course, it's not as if Suicide Pact has an entirely uniform sound. It's actually quite remarkable that it's as cohesive as it is, given that the material was accumulated over the course of about three years of the band's members—five real-life best friends—intermittently writing music together between and during tours with their other groups. During the show, Z Berg alluded to the history behind their first song, "Square One," and, in an interview with Interview last year, Michael Runion gave a fuller account of the band and the friendship's origin:
Jason wasn't even in Rilo Kiley yet. James had just moved here. Maroon 5 was still called "Maroon." Phantom Planet hadn't even made their second record yet, so "California" hadn't even been out yet. It was a long time ago. We just became friends over the years. At one point, we went out one night to karaoke at a bar. It was kind of lame. We were like, "Let's go back to James' house." James had set up a little studio in one of his guest rooms. So we went back and Jason put down a drum beat, Alex started playing chords over it, and I played bass over that. Then, James was like, "I'm going to record vocals." Z went into the shower attached to the guest room; we put up a mic, and she sang this song that none of us had heard before. That became the demo for our first song, which is on our record. Not that version, but we made that demo, and we were like, "This is awesome! We already love hanging out. Let's just do this all the time!" We got together the next day, and we wrote a song called "Get What You Want," which eventually became the first song on our record. We didn't set out to make a record, but we knew when we hung out that good things happened: when we had time. Everyone was on tours; Maroon 5, Rilo Kiley and The Like were all touring. It was hard to make time for it. As time passed in the studio, we recorded six songs. We didn't know what we were going to do with them. We wrote some more songs, then we thought, "Oh, we should make a record." We tracked those songs. We recorded those songs, and we started mixing the record last year. Now it's done and out in the world. It's really crazy for me that it actually exists. It was kind of a long process.
If the stories match up, then that first song Runion is talking about is "Square One." Interestingly, although the song was collectively written by the members of JJAMZ, and was performed by them as early as 2009, it was first recorded, in a very different form, by The Like for their 2010 album, Release Me.
Z Berg will be down in San Diego again this Friday, May 31, 2013 to support Tom Brosseau and Sean Watkins at the North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe. I don't know if I'll make that one ($15), but maybe she'll perform some of her solo originals, which, so far, are sounding yet again something apart from either JJAMZ or The Like.