We caught up with Jungle Green right after they released their new LP Runaway With Jungle Green, a deep dive into their amalgamation of influences that run the gamut from ‘60s psych to ‘70s folk and into the experimental modern era. The once solo project journeyed to L.A. to record at the legendary Sonora Recorders with Producer/Musician Jonathan Rado (Foxygen, Father John Misty, Houndmouth and more) which left an indelible impression on the band and the record. Take a journey with Jungle Green through their process and what their Chicago festival lineups look like!
AS: Andrew Smith
AH: Alex Heaney
AO: Adam Obermeier
VM: Viv McCall
EC: Emma Collins
AM: Adam Miller
Jungle Green has grown from a solo project to an ensemble of six members.How did this evolution happen, and does Andrew still do the bulk of the songwriting?
AS: I’d always really wanted to play with a group but unfortunately didn’t meet the right people until about four years into writing and recording music. (I) Met Alex in an acting class in I’d say 2014/15, and started playing a handful of shows as a duo. In retrospect, they weren’t great performances, but we had a lot of fun, and it was pretty quickly established that we were brothers for life. I gradually met Emma, Adam M, Adam O and Viv, and just thought they were all super cool people with good taste and talent. I loved them from the start. It felt right to have them in a group.
How it works is, I’ll come in with the stripped-down version of the song, usually a demo with just voice and piano. From there, everyone puts their two cents in as far as writing parts for each instrument and arrangement ideas.
VM: Adam M had shown me Andrew’s music on a road trip back from Texas a few years back. I was a fan, and when I went to see them at the Empty Bottle that June, everything seemed to go very wrong, but I still loved it and I knew that it was the perfect time to ask if they needed a bass player.
EC: I met Andrew through Alex, and was asked to be a backup dancer for that Empty Bottle show. I made a skeleton T-shirt and wiggled around on stage. In the early days, we used to play monthly house shows hosted by Adam M and Vivian where I got back in touch with my love for performing and music. I started singing more and pulled out my clarinet from middle school. I think it was a great outlet for all of us and the perfect place to experiment.
The sound of Runaway With Jungle Green is imbued with the soft psychedelic vibes of the ‘60s. Where do you draw your influences from, and why look to that era for inspiration?
AS: My heart lies in music of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s; kind of end of doo-wop and early rock and roll. Beautiful songs that had hooks up the wazoo and were a lot of fun. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of ego at play, and there was a good amount of silliness involved. I’ve been a music nut, specifically a rock and roll nut, since I was a little kid. Even though I’d say my favorite stuff is from this period, I’m influenced by all sorts of stuff from 1955 to now. Some folks that’re super inspiring to this project are Ween, R. Stevie Moore, and Beck, folks that weren’t attached to any specific genre or style and are big nerds for all kinds of music, like me. But yeah, I kind of love it all. Lately I’m mostly listening to pretty aggressive music like Full of Hell and Whitehouse.
AM: We were really into Todd Rundgren, the Zombies, etc. at the time we made this record. JG and Rado was a great collaboration in the studio because we were very much on the same wavelength of sounds and bands that inspired us.
VM: Growing up, all of us were voracious music listeners who love pop from every era, and I think our music reflects that. There’s some ‘60s in there for sure, but it’s just a piece of what we love. Part of what brings out that old-styled sound is Andrew’s songwriting; part of it comes from us all growing up on that kind of music, and part of it comes from playing with instruments and equipment from that era when we were in the studio. Those sounds are so evocative that it just kind of came out of us pretty organically.
Along with Jungle Green and Atlantic City Melodies, Andrew has released music under Edward Wifi-Password, Gene Green, François, and as a solo artist. What leads to this prolific output?
AS: I really appreciate the kind words, thank you. I spent middle and high school strictly playing drums, even when I had a deep hidden desire to play a melodic instrument and write songs. There were a couple of rockstar wannabe kids who ran my high school and were in bands, and with my confidence being pretty low, I thought, “I shouldn’t even try to write songs, because I’ll never be as good as them. I should just stick to the drums.” When I turned 20, I realized that I needed to act on my desire to write and dove in head first, although it took a really long time for me to write something that I didn’t think totally sucked. I guess I’m just trying to make up for lost time.
AO: Everyone in the group has their own solo practices they dedicate time to. It comes natural and is a necessity for everyone in the band to explore different creative outlets and projects, and Andrew is not outside of that ethos beyond Jungle Green. We’re busybees!
From what we could find, Runaway With Jungle Green is the first project in the catalog to be recorded in a studio. How did the process differ from home recording? Was it preferable, or will home recording still play a role in the future of Jungle Green?
AS: The experience was pretty drastically different than what any of us are used to, being home-recorders. For the first time, we were working with a producer, an engineer, nicer equipment, a nice studio space, and a wide-array of instruments. We were really spoiled. I prefer it to home recording, but of course, the reason being because it was such a treat and honor to have the opportunity. I hope to do future home-recordings with the group, and if the opportunity presents itself, would also love to go back to a studio.
AO: We find it very liberating to solely exist in the ‘idea realm’ fantasy world of possibilities for a song the studio gives you. Having a studio fit with seasoned engineers and a producer willing to bring those ideas out of the ether privilege you above technical roadblocks as fickle as “is this cable working?” that severely hinder creative thought. They are both very different in terms of how they will illuminate a song into being, but we love both perspectives respectively.
VM: Like Adam said, when you’re recording at home, you’re switching hats between performer, arranger, engineer, producer, and songwriter almost constantly. That’s so much fun, but can be as limiting as it is inspiring. A studio allows you to exclusively focus on your performance and the performances of your bandmates. You can forget about the little stuff (like) noise, neighbors in an apartment, and think more big-picture or even indulge in some wackier ideas. There’s also the inner child that’s just so excited to be in a studio like that and try all those studio things you’ve always wanted to. Some good ideas come out of pure dream fulfilment. Then you have the dynamic of the producer working as a kind of impartial advisor over the whole thing. Rado is so fun to work with and would always be throwing out really interesting directions to us.
For example, recording “Cryin’,” which seems like one of the simpler songs, was actually a labor-intensive process. I remember doing at least two or three hours of takes before we got it right. I don’t know if he was kind of joking around, but he said he wanted us to play like we were robots in 2050 programmed to play like the 1950s. I thought it was really funny, but after he said that, the feel changed and we got it probably two takes later. On “All My Life,” he didn’t want the bass, keyboard, and bass parts overlapping, so he came out in the live room and pointed as us when we should be playing, kind of like my high school band director used to do, until it sounded tight and lean.That attention to detail made the difference.
In fact, you recorded at Sonora Recorders in L.A. where countless legends of the industry have recorded over the years. How was that experience?
AM: It was an amazing experience. Rado had such an eclectic setup of gear and instruments, and we really made use of the space in the studio. We would fill up the studio with the band and whoever was around to experiment with really large sounds like “Please Run Away With Me,” or we could get more immediate, dry recordings by separating into closets and corners like on “Happiness,” and “Calling My Name.”
AO: Bonkers, bananas, breathtaking.
AH: To jump off of a few things being said, it was kind of life-changing to record at Sonora with Rado. There was an air of romanticism to Sonora that we all get nostalgic about. We were mostly suburban-grown kids who knew very little about recording music outside of what we had read about or tried in our bedrooms. Then we were given this experience: go to Los Angeles, many of us for the first time, record an album in a place with almost no limitations and such a mythical history, and do it with Rado, whose work we all look up to. I think all of that combined to create a magic time for us, and a very sentimental record. Experiencing that with eyes wide open and seeing how wonderful and collaborative making music in the studio can be I think was a very formative thing for us that we’re super grateful for.
VM: One of the best experiences of my life, no question. I never imagined I’d ever step foot in a studio like that, let alone record an album.
EC: It was very special. Working with Rado and the whole team was so easy, and it felt really good to bounce ideas around for days on end. I’m grateful for the experience and it will stick with me and continue to inspire me for a long time.
Who are you listening to right now that you think deserves more attention?
AS: Where do I begin? Two of my biggest influences are Wild Man Fischer and Gary Wilson, outsiders who made amazing music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I don’t think they’ve gotten the recognition they deserve. Wild Man died a few years ago, but Gary’s still pumping out material that’s awesome. Viv, Adam O, and I saw him in Chicago recently, and even sat at a table near him while we were eating dinner. He was wearing his wig, sunglasses, and red lipstick while he was eating a burger.
Some more I can think of are “TV John” Langworthy, Locate S,1, Rubber Band Gun, High Appreciation Society and Peeper & Le Play.
AO: Astrud Gilberto, Lena Platonos, and the big hit singles by Sugar Ray are some of the best pop songwriting of all time.
AH: The song “I Want You” by Gary Low, which many people in the States probably know from the Washed Out sampled song, also Portlandia theme song, deserves its own attention.
VM: My favorite thing right now is “Love Is Overtaking Me” by Arthur Russell. It’s a tender “country” album with a lot of synths and drum machines that I find really inspiring and an underappreciated part of his catalog. Cate Le Bon’s new record slaps, and I have had the Heck’s new single “So 4 Real” on repeat all week.
EC: I’d like to give a shout-out to the Strokes’ album Comedown Machine. Old news, but . . .
If you were curating a festival of Chicago bands, what would the lineup look like?
AS: My festival would feature The Jesus Lizard, Fire-Toolz, ONO, Daises, and The Hecks. Would be a fairly small festival, but think these groups fit nicely together and would love to see them all in one place.
AO: ADAMCHELLA Music Festival would welcome Broadcast, The Supremes, Maurice Ravel’s Hologram, Rosie and the Originals, and Ahmad Jamal to the stage. It would include a live reading of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel” in the medical tent and strobe lights aligned with “Panama” by Van Halen occurring in the smoking section. Balladeers, jesters, and snake-oil salesmen roaming the grounds. Mandatory kindness and positive attitude. Complimentary coffee.
VM: The Flamingoes, Naked Raygun, Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers, Gene Pool, Wilco, The Handsome Family, Liz Phair, a Frankie Knuckles tribute act, and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.