Interview: JEFF The Brotherhood's Jake Orrall on Leather Pants, the Nashville Scene, and Almost Breaking His Neck
Jamin and Jake
With their savage follicles and beer-soaked, bruised take on punk, Nashville's JEFF The Brotherhood seem like the type of boys that would steal both your whiskey and your sister's virtue, and still earn a standing invitation to play your basement. But this might be an unfair assumption, because 23-year-old guitarist/singer Jake Orrall and his 21-year-old brother/drummer Jamin have been hardworking family businessmen for the better part of the decade. Both Orralls did time in dearly-missed Nashville sensations Be Your Own Pet (Jake left before the first album was released and Jamin before the second; everyone's still cool though). But JEFF has been their main passion; they had already recorded several (currently unavailable) albums before the release of their most recent collection/national debut Heavy Days, which is available via the family label, Infinity Cat. We caught with Jake before he left to tour with JEFF superfan Ted Leo, and he was happy to pontificate upon the practicalities of leather pants, the Nashville scene, and the chances of the Brotherhood adding a sister.
Let's start at the beginning. How long have you and your brother been playing together?
Uhm, in this particular band, since 2001. Our first album came out in 2002. 2002? That's weird, because all the publicity material makes it seem like you guys are a new band. I had no idea you'd been around that long.
Yeah, it's actually our sixth album, Heavy Days.
But this is the first one that's getting a national push.
Yeah, it's the first one that's had distribution or any kind of publicity.
Do you feel like a new band, or do you think of yourselves as veterans at this point?
Well, that's hard to say. I think we're trying to do something completely different now from what we've ever done. So in that respect we're a new band. We're a new band to the idea of trying to, you know, make a career out of it.
So, before it was just something you guys did between jobs or school?
Yeah, we toured every summer, and that was basically it until last year.
What made you decide to try to make a go at making this a living rather than just a hobby?
Uhm, well we started doing...when we made our new album we both thought it was really good, and thought that more people deserved to hear, I guess, or would like to hear it, and we were both in the position at the same time to move out of our places, and we had just gotten a really good deal on a van. I guess everything kind of came together at the same time. We were both unhappy with our jobs and stuff, so it was like "Shit, let's just go for it."
Where were you guys working?
I was working at a used bookstore, and ...actually Jamin still works at a bike shop sometimes, when he's in town.
Were you guys nervous to quit your jobs and make a go for it? And how has it been going?
We were pretty nervous about it. It's been weird to not have a place to live. We moved out in March, so that's been kind of weird. It's very unstable. But it's been going really good. We've managed to keep our heads above water. Make repairs on the van and stuff without having to borrow money.
Back when you guys were kids, who started playing instruments first, you or your brother?
We both kind of did at the same time. It was the same band, really, but it was under a couple of different names. Jamin originally played bass, and I think I started on the drums.
As soon as you started playing together, did you just assume you'd be in a band?
Well, we grew up in the country, outside of Nashville, and there really wasn't any other kids around, so it was pretty much just us and our little sister, but she was too young. We were like a little bit closer in age and, I don't know, I guess we have that brotherly connection. We pretty much did everything together.
How about your sister? Does she play any instruments?
Nope, not yet. We told her if she ever learns bass really well then she can join the band eventually. It can be a full sibling outfit.
As far as the brother relationship goes, would you say you're combative like Oasis or really peaceful and collaborative like, say, The National?
We're not really competitive at all. We work together on everything, and write all the songs all together. We don't ever practice. We come home from tour, and we'll be home for a week and a half and we'll have one writing session and just try to come up with a couple of new songs to play on tour. We've outlined our responsibilities in the band, so it's all very peaceful.
So no backstage fisticuffs?
No, no. It does get a little hairy when we don't have anyone on tour with us to roadie or sell merch and it's just us, that gets a little intense. Brotherly bickering and such, so we usually try and bring someone with us, that way neither of us can really get into it, because it's embarrassing, I guess.
Speaking of home, what was the rock scene in Nashville like, growing up? Because people think of Nashville as just country music, but there's been some cool rock bands from the area also.
Our first band that we really tried to do something with was when I was in tenth grade, and I guess Jamin was in the eighth grade and we had one other kid, who was in seventh grade, and that was a punk band called The Sex. We made a couple albums. At that time, basically, all we knew was the punk scene in Nashville, the underground punk and hardcore scene. That was our world. Later in high school, we started breaking into the noise scene when we started doing JEFF The Brotherhood, it was kind of more of a noisy band. The country thing has always been really separate from anything that we've ever been involved with. It's a very different thing, country artists moving to Nashville and playing at all the honky-tonks every night and trying to get picked up by RCA or Sony or whatever. For us, we were in bands because that was what we did to pass time.
Do you find yourself having to explain to a lot of people all the time that there's more to Nashville than just country?
Yeah, a lot of people do ask us if people ride horses and wear cowboy hats and stuff. We usually just try and keep that myth alive, really, rather than explain it to people.
Speaking of family, your dad, Robert Orrall is a songwriter, and he also owns your record label, Infinity Cat.
Me and Jamin and my dad and our manager (Holland Nix), we all own it together. Me and Jamin started it, originally, when I was in tenth grade. And I was an exchange student my senior year while Jamin was getting it with Be Your Own Pet, and that's when my dad took over a lot of the business parts of the label, because when Be Your Own Pet started we actually had a reason to really buckle down and try to make it more than just a hobby. Which, unfortunately, it really still is. But that's how he got involved. And Holland, our manager, got involved when me and Jamin just started hardcore touring and hired a publicist and got a booking agent and all that stuff.
When I was in high school I played video games and read comic books. When you were in high school you were in a bunch of bands and recorded a million albums and toured. Where did you get this motivation?
I don't know. It's funny, because there wasn't a lot of people doing that sort of thing. A lot of people were playing in bands, but there wasn't anybody trying to press records or book tours or anything. Our dad had done it. He was in this awesome new wave band in the '80s and toured constantly and stuff, I think hearing stories about that was really exciting.
JEFF the Brotherhood during CMJ 2009, sans leather pants
So I was doing some research for this, and I read that in 2000 your dad did a song with Al Gore?
He wrote a song about Al Gore, and [Gore] came into my dad's studio in the basement and laid down a little vocal track at the end.
Wow. Did you get to meet him?
Yeah, he actually lives down the street from us, and my dad and him are good friends.
I can imagine that got a mixed reaction from the community. What was that like for you guys?
Uhm...we didn't really...we didn't really get much of a reaction. I mean, it did but it wasn't like people saying...I guess I'm not exactly sure what you mean.
Were any of the conservative people in Tennessee mad at your family for working with Al Gore?
No, we got nothing but positive feedback from it.
So, in addition to the album, you release your own comic books?
We used to do comic books. We did 25 comic books or something, none of which are available any more. Jamin went to film school for a little while and has always been into filming, we've done 6 or 7 music videos, ourselves.
What were the books about?
In high school, I did a comic book that was about an alien, from another planet, that was trying to assimilate into American culture, and all the confusing things that he went through. We had a little book called The Brotherhood that we would do once every couple of months. That one, we used to make like 50 copies and put them in with 7-inches and stuff.
Listening to you guys, it's definitely punk. But Southern punk, very loose and riffy but still fast. How'd you nail your sound?
Our sound definitely evolved quite a bit since our first album which was really inconsistent and immature, just random shit. Our album before this was one was very, very...like the album is called The Boys Are Back In Town and the first song was 15-minutes long. It was really, really kind of jammy, psychedelic kraut-rock kind of improvisational kind of stuff, with some really hard-rock sounding songs mixed in. And me and Jamin pretty much draw all of our influences from obscure early '70s hard rock bands and Southern rock bands and stuff, and then also earlier '80s pop punk and stuff. So basically, this album and a tape came out at the same time...we did a tape of all the stuff that was too jammy and obscure sounding to go on the album because we wanted the album to be really accessible to a wide audience. We basically took all the really honed-in meldings of hard-rock and early '80s pop-punk, and put those on the album. It's really riff heavy, early '70s hard rock and Southern rock mixed with '80s pop-punk and power pop. That was basically the idea.
Live, do you stick to the tight-fast punk songs? Or do you do the 15-minute long jams?
Only in cities in where we have a lot of fans from back in the day. But normally we try to keep our live set to a 25-minute power set of everything that's the most intense, hook-heavy stuff. Right now we're trying to focus on putting on the most bad-ass show possible every show. And I'm sure sooner or later we'll have to start playing 45 minute, hour sets, you know, if we're doing bigger tours. I think that's when we'll start to incorporate more of the psychedelic, kraut-rocky jams.
So, I saw you guys last month at the CMJ Marathon, playing the Union Pool. And you got right on the bar several times, just working it. Do you ever fall off when you do that, or do you have excellent balance?
I almost broke my neck, actually. Months, ago. There's this place called The Five-Spot in Nashville. And some friends of ours were having a show there, and they wanted some Infinity Cat bands to come open, and they asked us day of: "Will you guys come play this show so that the Infinity Cat fans will come out?" and we were like "Yeah, but if you're going to have one of us, then it's got to be all of us," so we had like four bands go and take over the show, basically. We were all just partying in the parking lot and making a scene, and sort of just messing around and stuff and got pretty drunk. We made this huge stack of amps and we were all just sort of trading off and playing songs, because there was no one there, just us and our friends hanging out, and I climbed up this scaffolding thing and got on top and the bottom amp was on wheels and slipped out from under and everything came down in a big pile. Pretty gnarly. I fell on the back of my neck.
Ugh. Does that sort of thing happen often?
No, not too often. It was funny, though.
At the show you had a mustache. And I wasn't sure if the pants were leather, but they seemed pretty tight. You definitely had the full-on rock star look going.
Yeah, those are my leather pants. I'd had the leather pants for a long time from a band called Scorpion Sting that I was in when I lived in Washington State, and I just found them in the closet and decided to bring them up to CMJ and ended up wearing them like every day, lived in them for a week. And I can't take 'em off now, because they're lined with silk. They're like, the best pants ever. And in the winter, they cut the wind, so you never get cold.
That sounds comfy. And how long have you had the mustache?
A couple of years. I don't know why. My facial hair kind of grows in really splotchy, except for the mustache, which will grow in pretty good, so I just kept it. I don't know, I like it. It scares the rest of the girls of when I'm on tour, so my girlfriend doesn't worry about me.
JEFF The Brotherhood play the Bowery Ballroom with Ted Leo on Sunday, and headline Mercury Lounge on Monday. Visit the Orrall Men at http://www.infinitycat.com/.
Jake, with moustache
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