Mike Rimmer spoke with the lead singer of JONEZETTA, modern rock exponents from Mississippi
For me, it all started with the music and that is how it should be! A white label copy of 'Popularity' by an American band I'd never heard of called Jonezetta blew me away musically as it was packed with some of most exciting music I'd ever heard from the Tooth & Nail label. It was rock but not bone crunchingly heavy and it was thoroughly modern. I wanted to know more. I eventually tracked down the Mississippi-based band's lead singer Robert Chisolm and he talked to me on his cell phone while he had some down time in a Californian theme park.
The band have been together since 2003 and have a more European sound than many of their contemporaries and Chisolm cited the band's influences as including Genesis, Phil Collins, The Cure and U2. "I connect more with British music," he admitted. "I love it, man. I love bands like Oasis. That's our guitar player's favourite band. Blur. . any of those bands. I love their song writing. I love their style. So much style to everything that they do."
The album's title 'Popularity' is deeply ironic. Chisolm explained, "It was the idea of becoming a one-hit wonder band. It was a joke, you know? So I play off that and that's why the record was called 'Popularity'. I wrote every song, not that they would all be singles but to sound like singles. And that's why we called it 'Popularity' because it had that punch to it, with the song titles being the main hook of the song. 'Backstabber' is the main hook and that's what it's called. 'Get ready, hot machete' is the main hook and that's what the song is called."
Building songs around titles and hooks is a passion for Chisolm and it pays off on the band's debut. He explained, "When it comes to writing, I just go with ideas at the beginning. Song titles, anything that could stick in people's heads, and then I write music and melodies around it. I think that's how you stick. You've got to come up with titles and really hooky songs that people can remember. You've got to think, if you're going to say one word over and over and over it can't be 'jack-in-the-box, jack-in-the-box'. It has to be something like, 'backstabber'. Some type of word that would mean more than 'newspaper'."
The 21st century music scene is a challenge for new bands. You can make an album and can get a measure of success and yet still flog your guts out trying to become successful. So how is it going for Jonezetta? Are people "getting" the band? "It's all funny to me these days; your record can get played on the radio and all that kind of thing but you're still struggling because of things like Internet and downloaded music and MySpace. So I kind of keep all that in mind. Most kids don't follow a specific band, they follow a specific genre these days. They're not head over heels for Blur and anything Blur does like back in the day, you know? It's got to be a whole mesh of bands. It's got to be Bloc Party, The Killers. . 'Oh, I listen to Interpol, I listen to blah, blah, blah. .' It's all a genre and people aren't really following bands like they used to."
At this point in the band's development, Chisolm has a very simple goal. He just wants to make another record. There are so many bands that form, record one album and then disappear that he doesn't want to join their ranks. He explained, "What I want to do would be to come out with a second record that people remember and we aren't just some band at the beginning. We weren't some band some kids founded and decided we were the new cool thing and our second record won't matter because they're looking for the new cool thing next; some other band, you know? So I just want to recreate ourselves. You have to constantly be changing to make an impact I think. Bob Dylan said that."
The powerful thing about the band's music is the way in which they blend together a danceable groove with a powerful melodic rock attack. Add on top of that some catchy songwriting and the mix becomes positively intoxicating. One of the first songs to capture me was "Get Ready (Hot Machete)" and yet listening to it, I had no idea what the song was about and now came my opportunity to find out. "That's a song written about a dance move I guess!" Chisolm laughed. "I sat down and was listening to songs like "Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting" and "Macarena" and songs just written about dances. I guess I went with that."
So how would I do that? If I went on a dance floor how would I do the hot machete? "Well, I guess I'd have to be there to show you man!" Chisolm laughed again. Admittedly having a dance lesson over the phone isn't the easiest thing to do. Would I have to wave my arms around like I was waving a hot machete? "Yeah, I guess that could be close enough," Chisolm remarked. "But you couldn't keep the machete in one hand too long, you'd have to switch to the other." So that would be a swipe'n'switch movement. Hmmmm. . .
In recent years it's been my observation that when it comes to creating cool music or making music that has a spiritual impact, those two approaches appear to be mutually exclusive. It sometimes seems as though bands that make really cool music don't have much to say spiritually or that bands who really want to communicate their faith strongly make bland or cheesy music. As a critic I often despair. I long for a band who make strong, direct, spiritual statements, aren't ashamed of their faith and marry it to cutting edge music.
Turning the conversation to spiritual things, it seems that Jonezetta fall into the category of powerful music but little spiritual message. I asked Chisolm how faith motivated the band and his response? He replied, "I don't know. I think it would just motivate my life rather than the band. I look at it like; you guys play a lot of soccer over there, right? So take the Premier League. Well, it's not called the Christian Premier League if you're a Christian, you know? You're just in the Premier League and if you believe in Jesus Christ or whatever, you're still in the Premier League, playing soccer, doing something that you love doing. That's kind of how I look at music. We're in the music industry, doing what we love doing. But we believe what we believe and we live our lives daily on what we have faith in and, that kind of thing. That's kind of where I stand on it."
Chisolm described his upbringing. "It was in a fundamentalist-type Southern Baptist-type home. Our parents are still extremely loving and that's how they were raised. I still love my parents and all but I had to figure out where I was personally. It was a constant struggle but I figured you have to believe in something. The fact of reading the Bible and seeing how Jesus Christ was to people, that really inspired me."
He was in his late teens when the struggles began. "I struggled with falling into something. Not by choice but because I was taught it. I wanted to believe whatever it was that I was going to believe, whatever it be. I wanted to find it and let it be real in my life because I found it. That's what I struggled with. Other Christians can be extremely brutal and overwhelming and it's not fun for anyone in a band really if they're preaching at you. Asking you, 'Why do you do this if you're a Christian? Why are you this? Why are you that?' It's extremely disheartening to what I believe and that kind of thing."
If Robert struggles with the judgmental attitudes of other believers, he finds it easier to relate with those who aren't Christians who are also searching. "Yeah, that's an easier thing", he admitred. "When people don't expect anything from you and they don't expect you to say something to them. They don't expect any of that and then it just hits them, you know? 'So tell me why you do this?' Not even, 'Why do you play in a band?' It's just, 'Tell me, why are you, you?' Then we just get to talkin'. And understanding people; that's the first thing I think Christians should do, is understand people where they're at. If you're a Christian you should really take hold of who you're talking to and understand that they're nowhere near where you're at and you're nowhere near where they're at. It's all about conversations, man. It's the only thing really. Just conversations and then actions and loving people. I know that's said over and over, 'Love this person. Love that person,' but you don't necessarily have to love them in any certain way but have that something about you that they notice I guess."
It strikes me that this is the way that Jesus communicated with people. He went out there and he got on the same level as people and engaged with them. Chisolm agreed, "Yeah, totally. He definitely didn't beg for them to subscribe to any ideas, he was just being a part of their lives. And people were definitely attracted to his ideas because of what he showed them and how he treated them."
So does that thought influence the way he operates when he's playing with the band? "Yeah totally," he responded. "I think you're doing yourself a big disservice if you try to speak from a microphone or from any time where you become the public speaker. I think if you're sitting down; the person that takes my order at McDonalds, that's where I find myself making a connection with people. I don't want to tell anyone anything just because they have to listen. If I'm standing at a microphone they HAVE to listen to me no matter what. And I hate shouting things at them so that I'm MAKING them listen to it."
Ultimately it feels as though Robert is still puzzling out what he really believes and coming to terms with the experiences of his upbringing. In that area, he's not alone and if being a Christian in the 21st century is seen as a journey rather than a destination, then he has plenty of time to discover his own faith. In the meantime, if he wants to make music and just be in a band in the music scene like a footballer is a player in the Premier League, I wonder whether Jonezetta would do well to reposition themselves on a mainstream label rather than staying on Tooth & Nail. Ultimately though as I write this some months after our conversation, I'm hoping he is working away in a studio somewhere proving his band aren't one album wonders.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.