Talented and humble, Thornewill offers proof that one of the country's up and coming bands is not too impressed with stardom. Just three weeks after appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman, the band will be staying with Thornewill's parents' home during their tour stop in Louisville. Anyway, who needs fancy hotels when you can get homecooking and your old bed?
Louisville.com: Ben, are you a Louisville native? What is your background in Louisville, pre-George Washington University?
Ben: Born and raised in Louisville. Lived in St. Matthews and then out in the Indian Hills area. Yeah, born and raised my whole live.
Louisville.com: Where did you go to high school?
Ben: I went to Ballard...what's sort of interesting is that the band started in D.C., and the drummer (Jesse Kristin) is from Boston; Tommy (Siegel) the other singer is from Richmond, and I'm from Louisville, so there's too many cities to name in a press release.
Louisville.com: During that time in college, what sort of stuff were you listening to when you formed the band?
Ben: When we formed the band, what was I listening to? I don't even know. I think Arcade Fire had just come out so they were getting big. At that point I was studying jazz; I was listening to a lot of jazz and some pretty intense classical music. I wish I could remember to be honest. It was too long ago and we had gone through so many musical phases that (laughs) - I have no idea. That's sort of a bad answer.
Louisville.com: No, that's fine. I saw at ABC interview with you guys, and Tommy mentioned something about Ben Folds, saying that while you guys really like him, he really wasn't an influence. I'm not a musician; I just love music, but as a musician, were there bands and artists you grew up liking but weren't necessarily influenced by to play in a certain or similar style?
Ben: Yeah. I like to define influence is like a model to base your songs off of - something to draw from. I grew up listening to Ben Folds, but I never used him like a reference point, like write a song that sounds like a Ben Folds' song. Rather, I'm drawing from my classical background or pure techniques, and Jesse's pulling his drumming from everything from Ringo's drum fills to his punk rock days. For influences, it's a tricky thing, and often musical tastes plays a very small part of it. If that makes sense.
Louisville.com: It does. I've read that Tommy mentioned he was listening to a lot of Yes during the time you guys were doing a few of the songs on Everything Under the Sun - sort of the grandiose pro parts to the album including your So Let Us Create. Sometimes, does what you're into currently affect it.
Ben: That's a great example of the other way - that Tommy was listening to a ton of Yes and wanted to write a song that was sort of our take on it, so that's an example of the opposite - his song The Stars is very much Yes-influenced, but you meld that sort of music into a Jukebox the Ghost song. That's an example, but other songs are just born from wherever the hell songs come from in the first place.
Louisville.com: One thing that's apparent immediately from listening to your music is the fact that you're not just your everyday piano-playing rock guy, and by that I mean it's not like you're playing the Van Halen synth part in Jump. I saw a live video of Schizophrenia. The way you're playing, it looks like, while it's very intricate, it also looks second nature for you. At what age did you start playing? You've already mentioned classical and jazz. What is your background on the piano?
Ben: I started taking piano the summer I turned seven and studied serious classical piano all the way through high school. And during school, I started writing music, and it was always the battle between pop music and the rigor of classical practice. And Schizophrenia is a very good example of that because the song was born from tricky piano parts ... that's also how a lot of my songs get written is that I find something that is hard to play, I figure out how to play it, and in doing so, write a song.
Louisville.com: A lot of times a vocal gets stuck in your head as an earworm, but that song's piano riff is what does to me. It's immediately catchy, and they've been playing that one quite a bit locally on WFPK. They are playing the catchy Empire. I hope they start playing Popular Song in their rotation. It almost reminds me of Queen at the chorus. It's such a well conceived song.
Ben: It's so over the top, and that's part of the charm in it; I think.
Louisville.com: With that in mind, do you guys come individually to the band with songs and then you all decide the arrangement at that point?
Ben: Yeah, that's usually how it works. My songs are usually structurally done when I bring it in, and then it's hours of figuring out how we want to arrange it, and how we make it sound with a full band. Tommy's songs are a little open ended, but he has a very defined vision for the end product. It's like a sculpture; to see what's inside, you've got to chisel away at it and find out what's underneath.
Louisville.com: For three of you, you have a really huge sound. On the Schizophrenia video, you are playing another keyboard and the piano at the same time, and it sounds like more people. Does Tommy play the bass in the studio?
Ben: It's funny; when we're arranging, we're arranging for a live show, and we put a lot of effort into figure out how to make the songs sound big and full with only three people. And much of our sound as a band and sort of what sets us sonically apart is that we have to figure out how to make - low end and mid range - and make the song sound full with only three instruments. In the studio, we took our arrangements and got to add to them, so some songs have bass, some songs don't. There's a lot of synths, there's some organ, and you've got the luxury of almost infinite instrumentation in the studio to make it sound how you want.
Louisville.com: Between your first album and this one, you did about 300 gigs in less than two years. Is it hard to get fired up each night when you're doing it that often?
Ben: You know, except in times of extreme exhaustion, I don't find it that hard because that's the part of the day we get to look forward to. It's the drives and not eating well or whatever that gets you down. But the whole point of being in a band is to tour and play music and for me anyway, that's the part of the day I look forward to. It's by no means a chore.
Louisville.com: I guess that's the one time you get o see the reaction of people to your music. You don't get to see their reaction when they're listening to the CD.
Ben: That's the point of all the work - is to get to that show. I'm always happy to be playing a show.
Louisville.com: YepRoc is really one of the growing labels in its importance with a great roster of artists. There's you guys, Bell X1, Liam Finn, and other up and coming artists, and there's revered acts like Rodney Crowell, Nick Lowe, Paul Weller, and Madness. It's got all types of artists, but there seems to be a unified aspect in quality. How did the YepRoc signing happen?
Ben: We had been talking to YepRoc for close to three years now. They came to a show a long time ago, and so we developed a rather close relationship with all of them... One of the coincidences is that we rented a house in Philly that completely coincidentally was owned by the owners of YepRoc, and on top of that, the house came with a jukebox.
Louisville.com: Serendipitous all the way around.
Ben: Yeah, that's the word I was looking for. There you go.
Louisville.com: You've talked about the shows, the effort, the gratification that comes with it. For those who aren't as familiar with you all, what can a novice expect from you guys with the show? What sets your shows apart? It looks like you guys have a lot of energy and crowd participation.
Ben: You know it's funny. It's hard to define what makes a good show, but we're really high energy and it's feel good. And our goal is that everyone who comes out of the show will be happier and feeling better about the world. It's a mood improver if that's what they're looking for.
Louisville.com: Whether it's a movie or concert, there's something to be said for two hours of escaping your problems. Your music seems to combine an element of fun, but it's cerebral fun. And that's not always easy to do, and that's not always found in popular music. Is that just how it comes out, or do you guys think, "I want this song to reference so and so" or do things just come out organically.
Ben: You know, it's who we are as people, and so it is an organic creation. And you know, we draw influence beyond just musical influence from film and from books and from life, so it's not about making decisions about what we want to this to reference, but it's just a product of who we are, who we are as writers.
Louisville.com: One last question I have to ask. You will only be in town briefly, so does that mean you will be staying with your family or do you not have time for any reminiscing?
Ben: As my mom says, I'll see you on the radio. We're going to stay at my parents' place and we'll be in Charlottesville the night before, so we'll make the whole drive that next day and stay two nights at my parents' place. And if nothing else, at least we'll be well slept and eat some good food. That day we're doing an FPK in studio and then an ear-X-tacy in store before the show. So that will be a busy day.
Louisville.com: That will be great. It is a smaller store, but it does have a stage, so that should be a good deal.
Ben: I love ear-X-tacy. Ear-X-tacy and FPK - I preach its gospel all across the country.
Louisville.com: That's great to hear. We really value both of them in Louisville quite a bit - as both a source of new and important music. That's also great to hear. Oh and not many major label bands actually stay with a member's parents on tour, so that is actually very refreshing. Now hopefully your band mates will not demand certain types of bottled water from your folks.
Ben: (Laughs) No, but I know some artist - I won't name names - but demanded water bottles with her picture on it, which I thought was pretty spectacular.
Louisville.com: Now all of our Louisville.com readers will be wondering "Who was that person?" So they can make their own guesses.
Ben: If they can find it, it's their knowledge to have.
Louisville.com: Well Ben, thanks for taking time with a show tonight and traveling, and all the hectic parts of touring.
Ben: It was a very nice and pleasant interview, so I appreciate it.
Louisville.com: Thanks Ben, and good luck with the rest of the tour, and we will be looking for a lot of big things from you guys. Thanks very much.
Ben: Thanks so much. Take care.
Tickets to the Jukebox The Ghost show which will include opening acts Hooray for Earth and Via Audio are $8 in advance at ticketweb.com and $9 at the door of The Vernon Club the day of the show. Doors for the 21 and over show open at 7:00, and the first acts takes the stage at 8:00.
Check out the great video for the song Hold It In off their debut album Let Live and Let Ghosts.
Photo: Courtesy Jukebox the Ghost