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Roots Redux: Jones Street Station

15 Jan

I’ll let a greater critic and writer than I introduce Jones Street Station.  Greil Marcus wrote of the group, “Listening is like running down a mountain on a switchback trail, the sound of surprise generating its own momentum. There’s a punk glee inside the bluegrass craft–and a punk vehemence inside the bluegrass smile.”  All of which sounds like a perfect mix for the West Bank.  In advance of their Saturday show at the Nomad World Pub, Cake In 15 caught up with drummer Sam Rockwell, Minneapolis native and Cin15 fave with his other band, The XYZ Affair.


Jones Street Station- photo via Crackerfarm

Jones Street Station- photo via Crackerfarm

Cake in 15:  Give us some background on how Jones Street Station got together.  You all come from different states, I assume you all met in NYC.  When was that- you aren’t that old, so how do you become “veterans of New York City’s roots music community”?

Sam Rockwell: Jones Street Station grew out of a traditional bluegrass group called the Cobble Hillbillies (Cobble Hill is a neighborhood in Brooklyn).  Danny (Erker)and Jon (Hull), the mandolin and harmonica players in Jones Street Station, were both in that band and were and are very active participants in the roots community– they have both been regular attendees of a number of weekly jams that occur around the city for the last six years or so.  About four years ago they split off from the Hillbillies to write less traditional songs and Jones Street Station was the end result of that split.

The XYZ Affair is definitely a power pop band, but there is an emphasis on harmony and musicianship that carries over.  The PR for “Overcome” talks about the synthesis of styles, do you all have different band backgrounds?  
We do all have different musical backgrounds.  My initial training was in jazz (Minneapolis native drummer JT Bates taught me how to play) and I played in a combo of jazz, rock, and hip hop groups through high school and college. Walt (Wells), our bass player, majored in ethnomusicology at Indiana University and has played in everything from orchestras to rock bands.  Our keyboard player (Jonathan Benedict) is an active producer and regularly makes dance remixes of pop and hip hop tunes.  Jon and Danny primarily come from the roots community, although both have forayed into other styles throughout the years.  
Everyone in Jones Street Station writes music for the band and, depending on the composer, songs range according to our stylistic backgrounds.  The thing that gives us a cohesive sound is the fact that everyone listens well as musicians, along with our (relatively) unique instrumentation– harmonicas, banjo, drum set, synth, and electric bass to name a few of the instruments.
A lot of commentators have pointed to the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack as a moment of collective revitalization of roots music, but to musicians there is also a feeling that the Faulkner quote that “The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.” applies.  On a personal level, how did you come to roots music and on  a larger scale what do you make of the resurgence of Americana and roots music in the last years?
For me, Walt and JB are who brought us to roots music.  Danny and Jon both grew up in the Midwest and have always been a part of the bluegrass/country community.  I agree the Faulkner quote you provided– I think that history is cyclical and that it can be hard to put a finger on what precisely brings and older style of art back into the spotlight.  For example, big band jazz has been played continuously by a lot of bands since that music was invented in the ’20s or ’30s.  It has of course evolved over the decades, but we saw a resurgence in the popularity of the older style of jazz in the mid-’90s swing music craze.  I realize that that does not really answer your question directly, but I guess what I am trying to say is that the past “isn’t even the past” is true, and what we see is simply a fluid shift of who is listening to what at any given time.
2008 was a big year for you with Jones Street Station, releasing “Overcome”, shows at Sundance Film Festival and play commissions.  What are your favorite memories of the year and what do you have up your sleeve for 2009?
I think writing the music for the play ‘12 Ophelias‘ (by the Woodshed Collective) has to be up there as a favorite memory.  We were approached by the theater company to compose the score and songs in May and agreed to do it a few days after we thought about their proposal.  After agreeing to do it we had a couple days to write the first song so they could use it for casting call backs, and then another 2 1/2 weeks to write all nine songs so that rehearsals could begin.  We divvied up the responsibilities and met almost every day in small groups to work the songs out.  The whole process was pretty chaotic but was a great experience.  For example, one of the songs was featured on a New York Times online slideshow and it was written in about 20 minutes the day before we had to get it to the company.
As for next year, we have some exciting things on the horizon.  We will be doing some fun tours (we have a few dates with Ben Kweller coming up) and will be releasing our new record in the early spring.  After that I guess we just keep our fingers crossed.
Welcome back to Minneapolis!  Any favorite things you do when you get back into town?
Jones Street Station are at the Nomad World Pub, 501 Cedar Ave S on the West Bank.  With Mighty Fairly, The Feed (St. Louis) and Mouth Babies.  8pm/$5/21+

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