Can you play an instrument? Good for you. How about two? Nice. How about playing every instrument needed for a complex, alternative math-rock album complete with three part vocal harmonies, ear yanking choruses, kick-ass guitar licks, soaring keys, time-altering drums and meaningful lyrics? No. I didn’t think so. You suck and I suck.
Mr. Jonathan Poe though, does not suck and will put your lame GarageBand recordings to shame. Shame I say! And what he creates with his brain sputtering open and oozing sweet melodies and heavy sounds will leave you jealous, jealous, jealous that you can’t create 1/10th of what he can. Damn you Jonathan! Damn you! I throw my kazoo into the fire now, Jonathan! This is what you wanted, RIGHT?!?
Calm down and take a deep breath…. whew ok. But seriously, how can anyone be so talented with every instrument they touch and create such layered, complex yet ear-stabbingly catchy music? I mean give any one of his albums a listen, from the self-recorded Letters From Seoul (a highlight in my book) to his other self-recorded Palmetto to his earliest of self-recordings and find one, just one song that doesn’t inch its way into your inner ear drum and play itself on that little, tiny record player spinning away. So good.
The Nashville native, Mr. Poe takes some time from his mastering yet even more instruments in Shanghai to chat with us about his influences, style and future.
Jonny Boy, can I call you that? How does it feel to overtake Trent Reznor in self-recording talent?
Thank you for the kind words although I’m going to have to give a pass to this Jonny Boy thing. While I definitely don’t make any claims to being on the level of musicians like Reznor, I have had the benefit of years of trial and error as I’ve been self-recording in my home since 8th grade. Recording music has always been a total learning by doing experience for me, as I’ve only started trying to properly dig into the technical side of programs like Logic Pro in the last year or two. Before that, I viewed focusing on the audio engineering side of things as a distraction from writing the music, and I only wanted to learn just enough so that the audio software wasn’t holding me back from getting my musical ideas out. However, it has been immensely fun and rewarding to immerse myself further and further into that world. There are moments when I listen back to some of the earlier recordings and hear a vocal track overdrive for a moment or some unintended electronic distortion and I realize how much I have learned but also how much I still have to learn. In addition, a consistent challenge that I’ve come to enjoy as a part of the process is trying to get the most I can from a revolving door of access to equipment. From having access to studio mics, a Rhodes electric piano, and a myriad of percussion toys at my parents’ house to having a single stage mic, electric guitar, and a two-octave MIDI keyboard in Seoul, the music has been shaped by how vastly different my musical toolkit has been during different times in my life.
How did you begin learning music and what were your influences to create such ridiculously amazing music?
Again, you’re making me blush. Music has always been an essential part of family life as my grandmothers on both sides of the family, my parents, my sisters, and several cousins are all musicians in some capacity. One of my cousins, Anthony Zediker, is killing it right now in L.A. playing piano professionally for musicals like The Producers and teaching music to university students. It was so natural for family events to turn into someone playing piano or breaking into song. My dad was definitely the single biggest influence on me musically at a young age as he was a band director for decades and strongly encouraged my musical tendencies. I took classical piano lessons for about five years in elementary school, but something about it just never fully clicked for me, so I mostly stopped playing piano when I began playing trombone in middle school. All of the bass lines in my songs are directly influenced by playing trombone from middle school through university and learning unconsciously how to support melodies with lower parts. I finally found guitar in 8th grade. One of my friends was given a Christmas gift of a 100$ electric guitar/amp combo from Walmart which he never used and ended up sitting in his attic. He finally relented and gave it to me after months of trying to convince him to do so, and guitar has been my primary instrument ever since.
Probably my two biggest influences are Radiohead and The Beatles, though there are hundreds of artists that have influenced me throughout my life. Things I’ve tried to implement in my own music that Radiohead does well are experimenting with electronic sounds and textures, creating a dark or reflective emotional tone, and using somewhat out-of-the-box chord progressions and song structures. The Beatles were the first band that really influenced my cultivation of vocal harmonies, which are absolutely one of my greatest joys in music. Their later work heavily impacted my love of unique song structures and sound experimentation. There are also some more recent bands that have inspired me such as Tame Impala and King Gizzard & the Wizard Lizard. Additionally, although their specific style of music hasn’t been as influential on me, artists like Beck and Ben Folds opened my eyes to the possibility that someone can have a complete recording project just as one person.
Has living abroad in Seoul and Shanghai influenced your songwriting?
Living abroad has been a massive influence on my songwriting. On a tangible level, the lyrics on Letters From Seoul are all based on my experiences there including anxieties about leaving and returning to the US. The album that I’m currently working on also mostly draws from experiences in Shanghai for the lyrical content. My access to equipment has varied a lot while living abroad, as I mentioned before, and that has played a concrete role in the songwriting process. More intangibly has been a unique tone in the music I’ve written in each place. It’s hard to put my finger on precisely how this comes through, but I certainly hear my perception of the vibe of Seoul and Shanghai throughout the music I’ve made in each of those places.
If you ever wanted to perform a song straight from your records, you’d need a 15-100 piece band. How do you strip it down and perform these songs with your live Shanghai band, Deku?
This has always been a challenge, and has become one that we’ve been heavily focused on recently as our other guitarist left China during the Covid-19 situation as so many foreigners did. That leaves a trio of myself on guitar and vocals, E.J. Swider on bass and vocals, and Joe Hillman on drums. There are several ways that Deku has tackled this. First of all, our versions of the songs are typically heavier or more aggressive than the solo versions. This helps to bring more interest to the songs that previously might have been brought by additional guitar lines, piano, or lush vocal harmonies in the solo recordings. Second, I’ve never wanted Deku or any band I play in to just be a cover band for the solo stuff. I’m extremely lucky to play with people and musicians like E.J. and Joe who bring their own creativity to reimagine the bass and drum parts to work more effectively as a three-piece live band. E.J. has also helped me recreate some of the vocal harmonies, most notably on “To Stand Lonely on the Turtle’s Head”, which is the first track on the Letters From Seoul album.
Tell us about your newest self-recorded, 4th album and what we can expect both music and performance-wise?
My 4th album, titled A Knock at the Paper Door, continues to move in some of the directions that could be heard on Letters From Seoul. For example, it further pushes the envelope when it comes to playing around with time signatures and unpredictable song structures. One of my greatest goals on this record was to have fun with changing time signatures while never losing the groove. A great pitfall of different time signatures is that a song can devolve into something that more closely resembles an academic exercise than an emotional expression. My aim was to create seamless transitions that no one would even notice if they were bobbing their head or dancing along at a show. However, there are also several ways in which it differentiates itself from earlier releases. One difference is that it feels overall more aggressive and less psychedelic than some of my older stuff. Probably the biggest difference is that this album is going to be significantly higher quality from a production standpoint. One of my best friends back in the US, Ben Hackett, is mixing and mastering this album. We’ve been sending files back and forth on Dropbox for months. Ben has been working at Chase Park Transduction Studios for a few years in addition to playing bass in an incredible band called New Madrid in Athens, Georgia. Artists such as Animal Collective, Deerhunter, and REM have used this studio, so I’m nothing short of giddy that my music will be running through some of the same gear as these artists. The goal is to have the final version finished by the end of the summer. As far as the live performance aspect, several songs from this album are already in Deku’s rotation of songs. We’re keeping our eyes and ears open for another member such as a guitarist or even keyboardist that could open up more possibilities with the songs, but we’re not actively searching or trying to rush anything like that.
Where do you see yourself in five and 15 years from now?
In five years, I see myself still teaching English at an international school possibly in Southeast Asia, Japan, or Europe. No matter the circumstances of my life, I will always continue to write and record music and hopefully be able to play live as well. It never fails to blow my mind that the ability to record music at home is only a few decades old. I just so happened to be born, against all odds, in this tiny sliver of human existence where technology has afforded me the ability to do the thing it is that I most love to do with just a laptop and an audio interface. Thinking about fifteen years from now barely crosses the line into forcing me to contemplate my own mortality more than I’d like, so I’m going to just leave it there.