Brother JT, aka the enigmatic John Terlesky, has returned with a mind-palace of an album entitled Tornado Juice. To be released March of 2018 on Thrill Jockey, TJ was recorded at Magic Door, a new studio in Montclair NJ, by Ray Ketchem, who produced the Original Sins' Bethlehem album in 1996. This was a departure for the Brother, who hadn't darkened the door of a real studio since 2007's Jelly Roll Gospel, preferring the freedom of recording at his band's practice space and overdubbing at home. "When I heard Ray was opening a new studio I had to try it out," he recounted in a recent interview. "Aside from his sick mic collection there's a comfort level with Ray I'm not sure I could find elsewhere. He knows music and he knows me, and I think that comes through in the tracks."
True to form, however, after recording the main band parts JT took the files home and overdubbed vocals and guitar leads to his heart's content onto his refurbished Dell laptop. "I wouldn't want to put anyone through that kind of obsessiveness, much less a friend. And I wanted to put my little stamp of grime on it."
A prolific writer, often inspired by the titular Tornado Juice (that's LSD, kids), JT records on average 40 songs a year before narrowing the selection for an album. Often, it is the lyrics that come first, fast and furious - excerpts from one of JT's many notebooks can be seen on the LP inner sleeve. "It could just be my subconscious going off, but these sessions really feel like a form of spirit channeling. I hear voices, all kinds of voices, and basically take down what they say. It might seem odd, but I feel like I'm giving these beings some kind of outlet. It's like having a collaborator, say, Bernie Taupin, only from another dimension and much scarier."
From the raw material of those pages the artist then honed the more decipherable passages into song lyrics, drawing musically from a bottomless well of influences: gutbucket blues to power pop, classic rock to garage-psych, even modern sources. "I listen to new stuff, and I noticed that the structure is usually really simple, like the same 4 chords, but slightly different melodies on the verses and choruses. Probably came out of hip hop and loops and stuff. I really can get behind that--love the songs you can play even when you're hammered."
An example of that might be "Ponin", which contains a whopping 5 chords total and spins a deceptively upbeat tale of freedoms gone awry. Amidst references to kettle chips, Betty and Veronica, and Tastee Freeze, JT depicts his lackadaisical, small-town existence and the trend towards 'all god's chillun...doin' what they want now', concluding, 'I'd stop it if I could but I'll be damned if I should know how.' "It starts out kinda fun and jokey," he acknowledged, "but it's a slightly sad song ultimately. Like being stuck going through the motions of life, without much meaning."
The Brother elaborated on the importance of that balance of humor and darkness in his writing. "I always liked that Randy Newman song "Political Science." On the surface it's funny, but there's a darker ring of truth to the impulse it suggests. And it still works today." An artist who has sustained critical acclaim for over 30 years (The Original Sins' Big Soul was released in 1987 and listed by the NY Times as one of the 10 best albums of that decade) while commercial success has eluded him, Brother JT appreciates the need for a sense of humor. "Oh, you gotta laugh, especially these days, if you're in this business. If I took all this too seriously I'd have been out of commission a long time ago." Still, the brass ring of 'making it' remains a definite spur to the creative process.
"It's like a quest to write this perfect song," he mused. "I don't ever get tired of it because I'm absorbing new influences all the time and feel like I'm getting better as I get older. Had I hit it big back in the day I don't think I'd be so motivated as I still am. And not even to get a hit, whatever that is these days. Just to make some music that is sort of deathless, classic. Like trying to bowl a perfect game or get a hole in one, only using a guitar."
A guitarist inspired by the 'rudimentary guys' or more specifically Lou Reed, Ron Asheton and Bo Diddley, JT plays a pelham blue Epiphone SG with an alnico whammy bar through a Blackstar Stage 40. Some favorite pedals for this intrepid psychonaut are Halifax wah-wah and Boss distortion and sometimes Roland RE-20 echo. While critics have referred to his playing as "miraculously distorted guitar... that'll rip your mind to shreds" *, JT demurs "I don't really enjoy playing guitar. I'd much rather be just a singer, like Mick Jagger or Tom Jones, but I just don't have the hips for it. And plus, who'd play guitar?"
* The Vinyl District
Some Excerpts from our recent conversation with JT:
Song by Song Breakdown: notes for each song
TMI is about wanting to simplify to the essentials. Probably the most felt song for me, nailed how I generally feel about things at this point, which is 'cut all cords, get a shack on the west coast somewhere, and take up frolf. I want to become the Jack Nicholson of frolf.
ZABRISKIE refers to the Antonioni film which ends with a long slow motion explosion. Chorus came out of a friend's request to do a cover of NIN's "Closer" only I couldn't sing those lyrics so I changed "You make me closer to God" into "Become one thing again." "Closer" didn't work out so I repurposed the sentiment. Little "Hollies" in there too.
MISSISSIPPI SOMETHIN' was created to flesh out the end tag "Never always gonna be your everything/But I'll be your somethin somethin for a while." Hard to say no to that when it knocks on your door and says, "finish me please." At some point I realized this is like a very long pick up line, somewhat crass, but honest at least.
MANIFEST BOOGIE is another product of a swell Saturday afternoon session of sense derangement. It's amazing how the words and rhythm just spilled out without any premeditation at all. Refers directly to John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" and seems to be about the compulsion to be a singer and heaven and stuff. As if to say, 'less a choice than preordained,' if you will.
SNAKEBIT is a term I've heard baseball announcers use for players in a slump (I'm a Phillies fan, so I've heard it a lot). Hard to tell if these cycles of bad luck are self-created, but they seem consistent. Just gotta wait 'em out I guess. The line about "the change always finds the pocket with the keys" is taken from a Nathaniel West novel (Miss Lonelyhearts I think)--a great author who died young in a car accident.
SHASTA I have no idea. When I eat weed candy and I listen all these tasty riffs start playing in my head and you have to make use of them to get them to stop. This one sounded like rolling down a snowy mountain in slow motion, so just went from there.
How did you get to be such a good whistler? Describe your technique!
Watched the Andy Griffith Show a lot. You put your lips together and think of Otis Redding. That might make a good album cover.
Tell us about the Pennsylvania State Bird and complaining.
The Pa. state bird is, as I recall, the Ruffed Grouse. I swear there was an arcade from my youth where youíd put a dime in the machine and two mechanical ruffed grouses would come out and do their little mating ritual.
THAT is value for your money. Nothing to 'grouse' about, I'm so goddamned happy.
Lists - a few of your favorites
Nob Jonni and the Girl From Space by Brother JT!
13th Floor Elevators Easter Everywhere
Food with a shelf life in excess of a year:
This one's hard. Salt?
On the possibility of branching out into other media via his internet talk show Trippin Balls:
"I feel like I could fill in a hole somewhere. A void where there should be a weird older guy freaking out, making people happy and/or afraid. Point the camera at me, put me onstage, and I make shit happen. I don't know what exactly until it happens. Sometimes it's a cause for joy. Sometimes many days of regret. But I'm a secret winner in sheep's clothing. What are you afraid of, Powers That Be? That I'm so, so right and will bring your empire to it's knees? Jack Black had his little time, it's Brother freaking JT's turn!" Mic drop.
Baked Alaska (Official Music Video)
120 Seconds With Brother JT - Be A Mop
120 Seconds With Brother JT - Eat Some Pie With A Guy Named Hank Before You Die
120 Seconds With Brother JT - Moon Pie
120 Seconds With Brother JT - Prayer Rug
120 Seconds With Brother JT - Theory Of Relativity
120 Seconds With Brother JT - Time
120 Seconds With Brother JT - What Is Love?
Celebrate Your Face