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Jump Little Children
I think that we're living in a time where artists will have to put out albums both backed by labels and not, many times over, in their careers. At least, if they're kind of quirky, like we are. Though I would love to hear how Britney Spears would do indie rock. - Matt Bivins
by Matt Mrowicki
 [Chorus and Verse] December 2002 Feature: Matt Bivins of J,LC
Jump, Little Children

The adjectives used to try and describe the sound of Jump, Little Children by those who try to do such things are not part of the standard rock band lexicon: blissfully eclectic, extraordinary musicality, elegant simplicity, delirious, earnest hopefulness, smart and engaging. But, then again, JLC isn't a standard rock band, neither in the music they make or the story that's led them here.

Born and bred in Charleston, South Carolina and formed at the North Carolina School of the Arts, an intense place where several hours of practice a day is the norm, in 1994, JLC were a bunch of art students, jamming around with various projects on and off campus. Ward and Jay were in the campus rock band, playing covers and a few originals at school events. Matt and his friend Chris were playing Irish music at open mic nights, one of which Ward attended. Soon, they were picking a name, based on a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee song the band covered, and making plans to leave school and hit the road.

As a trio, Ward remained in school for the time being, JLC made their way to Ireland, trying to convince the locals that young lads from North Carolina could actually play and hoping to pick up a few new tunes along the way. They returned to the states, with Matt's brother Evan joining the group on drums, and settled into the Charleston, South Carolina scene for a while, saving their money to make a move to Boston.

Boston would be a disaster. The trip there was marred by a difficult stay in New York City, and an arrival to Boston welcomed by the coldest winter in memory. While playing in the subways, Chris hooked up with a religious cult, and soon left the band, permanently, leaving the remaining members of JLC to question the wisdom of continuing. Depressed, broke and obviously unhappy with their New England experience, the band headed back to Charleston, crashing at the home of their friend Jonathan.

Far from quitting, the warm sunshine of South Carolina gave the band a new vigor and dedication. They vowed never to take day jobs again and, more importantly, decided that they wanted to rock, forgoing the Irish folk style they had focused on until that point. The band began to write, asked Ward to re-join the band on cello, and threw themselves into the local music scene.

In 1996, they released their first self-produced CD, The Licorice Tea Demos, and began to develop a local following that was expanding through the grass-roots. They toured, a lot, traveling in an airport shuttle bus that's become part of the band's lore. People liked it, major labels came courting, and they were eventually signed to Breaking Records, a division of Atlantic. The result was 1998's Magazine, a promising major-label debut if there ever was one. They toured behind Hootie and the Blowfish. They did a two-week tour of France. Their song "Cathedrals" even got played at IKEA.

Then, the music business took over. The key to a solid debut is a killer follow-up album, and JLC had it all planned. What they didn't expect was for Atlantic Records to drop Breaking, taking away the all-important distribution channel. Now a band without a label, they faced the greater challenge of taking back their property, a completed album that was held by a label that couldn't release it. Legal issues finally worked out, and JLC put together their own record label, EZ Chief Records, coming full-circle from art school kids, to music business veterans.

Today, they are Jay Clifford on vocals and lead guitar, Matt Bivins on harmonica, mandolin, tin whistle, accordion and vocals, Ward Williams on cello and lead guitar, Evan Bivins on drums and Jonathan Gray, their pal from Charleston, on upright bass.

So where does the band stand now? Vertigo has been released, and allowed Jump to return to touring, reconnecting with a loyal base of fans, and trying to earn new ones around the country. Building momentum in the music business is always a challenge, and here's a band that's looking to do it twice.

Chorus and Verse caught up with Matt following a wild show at the Village Underground in downtown Manhattan to clarify a few things about the band's story so far and, more importantly, their goals for the next act.

Jump, Little Children

You recently performed a very successful show at a packed Village Underground in New York. Does it surprise you at all to see so many fans singing along to your songs and wearing your t-shirts in the audience? Does the long ride to the next show get a little easier when you come off such a hot performance?

It surprises us more when we play places like LA, and San Francisco, and Denver, CO, mainly because we haven’t really played there that often, and the crowds now are near the same size as they are in NYC. We have been playing New York for at least five years. Once, an A&R agent that we didn’t sign with told us that we’d never “break” NYC on our own, without radio play. So it feels especially good to sell out the Village Underground. The long ride is never easy, but you do learn to get used to it. Certainly coming from a successful show is the best way to cope with the driving doldrums.

The crowd really popped for your version of Metallica’s "Enter Sandman" which not only features Ward taking on James Hetfield, but also performing a cool trick with a cell phone. How did that song get included in your set, and can you explain exactly what is going on with that cell phone to create the opening effects?

We’ve always started “my guitar” with some parlor trick. We got tired of the original opening, where Ward and Jay both “two hand tapped” on one guitar, and were thinking of something new, especially after our friend Butch Walker stole the idea from us. I think that it was Ward that came up with the cell phone trick, and combining his love for Metallica with downloadable ringtones made it a stunt. It’s fun. We’re on the lookout for some more ringtones, though; hopefully there’s a snippet of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” out there somewhere.

The crowd also enjoyed when the band went entirely unplugged and performed "without electricity". It seems like a risk for a band to go out of its way to quiet down a crowd, but it is a kick to be able to get a crowd bouncing around, and then have people shushing each other so they can hear when the amps go off? Is there a statement to be made going from heavy metal to all-acoustic within a few songs of each other?

We stole that idea from Guster, who stole the idea from U2. It’s a great thing to be able to play without any electricity at all, and we started that way, busking on the streets of Charleston. The best thing about it is the crowd’s ability to actually be quiet enough to hear us. We’ve played houses with nearly two thousand people, all holding their breaths so as to not make any noise. Ironically, the worst crowd we’ve tried to do the non-plugged thing with was our hometown of Charleston. They gabbed throughout the whole song. I think that people like it because it comes directly after a heavy metal song; our fans might be exceptionally ADD.

Another noteworthy aspect of your sets is your instruments; lots and lots of instruments. You break out harmonicas, an accordion and a strange flute-like instrument during the show, in addition to the different guitars, mandolin, bases and cellos played by the band. Were all of these different sounds always a part of your music, or have you continued to learn and add new elements to your songs as time has gone on? Do you think the individual members of the band get their due credit as talented musicians, or does that tend to get lost when you’re part of a band?

We have too many instruments, sometimes. The band tries to keep me from picking up another one. But we’ve always played them, from the time that we were a folk band; when we decided to play rock and roll we just didn’t want to give up the instruments that we knew how to play, in favor of keyboards or all electric guitars. Most people are surprised when I tell them that I can’t play the guitar; they assume that I can, but I really just know how to play the strange little instruments. And some much better than others; I’d never consider myself an accordion or mandolin player, really. I know how to play JLC music with those instruments, but I’m not very good at “jamming”. Ward, on the other hand, is an excellent guitarist and cellist, and Jonny can play bass in any setting. I suppose their talents are a bit subjugated by the umbrella of the “band”, but they don’t seem to mind too much. And there are always side projects!

During the New York gig, you mentioned the long drive down from Boston to get to the show. With so much equipment in tow, how does the band travel from show to show? Besides kicking-back the Red Bulls, what the band do while on the road to pass the time and keep from getting on each other’s nerves?

I laugh when people ask if we fly from gig to gig. If only we could! We travel in an airport shuttle bus that we call the “Park n Fly”, equipped with bunks and a TV and a Playstation 2. It’s not tour bus living, but it’s got to be the next best thing. We’ve learned over the years how to not press each other’s buttons, and those bunks help. So does the Playstation. Keeping your mind busy is key on the road, but you usually have to be occupied in a game or a book or something. Too many bumpy roads for serious work.

Jump, Little Children

JLC shows are rocking and bouncy affairs, which seems to differ with the vibe of your last album, Vertigo. Was that album a conscious effort to experiment with a different style, or simply a reflection of where the band was at the time? Where do you see the songs you’re writing now going in terms of the style and the mood?

We’ve always wanted to make each album sound very different from the last. We don’t purposely go after a certain style, but we let influences shape what the writing will be, and do try not to repeat ourselves. Vertigo was both a reflection of where we were, and, as we’ve since found out, a “pre”-flection of where we were going to be. I’m not saying that we’re psychic, but the album did seem to foretell our current states of mind. Perhaps for this reason we’re finding that we want our newer songs to be happier and lighter, just in case.

The title track of Vertigo sounds like it could be a solid single for the band. Have you found radio stations and other media outlets receptive to JLC? What are your goals as far as generating greater attention for the band and finding outlets, other then persistent touring, for building your audience?

It’s definitely true that in the markets that we’re played on any radio station, we sell more albums and have more people at shows. We had some radio success with Magazine, but most of these stations didn’t get behind Vertigo; a hard lesson to learn, certainly, but a necessary one. Signed bands get radio play. There is very little radio play for indie artists. That’s just the unwritten rule, and we’re subject to it like anyone else. We don’t prefer to be signed to a label, but we don’t prefer to be independent, either; there are pros and cons for both states, and though we definitely made more fans with Magazine, we’ve been pretty proud of Vertigo’s self-release. I’d like to see us try to sell albums in other ways than radio, personally. I think that artists like Moby, with his car commercials, and Phantom Planet, with their TV commercials and feature films, have found other ways to market themselves, and we would love to be a part of that, if possible.

Speaking of Vertigo, there was a time when it was possible the album would have never been released. Can you talk a little bit about how the situation with Atlantic Records occurred, and how you were finally able to get control of the album again and release it on your own EZ Chief Records? How has having your own label changed your attitude towards the production and marketing of music?

Our situation with Atlantic was similar to many bands’, there were money cuts, and our division of Atlantic, “Breaking Records”, was cut along with many others, and we were caught on a sinking ship. This was difficult, but not as difficult as Breaking’s reticence to give us back Vertigo. It was a very frustrating year (2001). Breaking was dropped, our album was in limbo, and we spent six months trying to tell them that we wanted to put the album out on our own. This is why we were so proud of “eZchief”, our own record label. No, Vertigo’s release wasn’t flashy and sexy, but we managed to do it on our own. Again, I don’t think that we have a preference for being signed or not; we’re not angry at Atlantic or hate all major labels. That would be silly. All record labels are the same in the end, and I think that we’re living in a time where artists will have to put out albums both backed by labels and not, many times over, in their careers. At least, if they’re kind of quirky, like we are. Though I would love to hear how Britney Spears would do indie rock.

Let’s move on to your latest project, a DVD release of a live show in Charleston. Included on the DVD are skits of the band members trying to be named the "best and most important member of JLC." How did the idea of the DVD come together, and what were the challenges in filming and producing a live show? Any reason you choose to release a live performance on DVD, and not a CD?

We knew that we wanted to film a show in Charleston, and we knew that we wanted to use long-time fans and friends Clay Wombacher and Matt Sterling to do the “b-roll” footage, or the skits. Those two are a comedy team from Nashville, and have known us for years. We asked for their help and the skits just came together beautifully, in a total of three days of filming. The editing of both the concert and the skits took forever, but the entire DVD was filmed in less than a week. We thought that a DVD would be a less-expensive way of putting something out there that many bands didn’t offer, and it turned out to be pretty expensive in the end, but definitely worth it. Now we’ll be able to show our grandkids what grandpa did for a living “back in the day”.

Now, talk about the skits. Did each band member write their own parts and how and where was everything filmed? What sort of reactions have you been getting from fans to the DVD and what are fans telling you about who, in fact, is the "best and most important member of JLC"?

Some band members co-wrote their skits. Some were pretty much realized beforehand. Super Sleepingbag Man just happened one night on the road, and Matt and Clay expounded on the theme. Jay’s original idea had to be changed a bit, but I think that it turned out better than anyone had expected. We wanted to give Matt and Clay a lot of free reign, because we knew how funny they could be. They came one week and in three days took hours and hours of digital footage. We basically made the skits to be something that we would see as funny, and were a bit nervous as to whether or not any one would get the jokes. But our fans have turned it into a bit of a cult thing, even creating drinking games to go along with it. I think that it was a great success, and at last poll, I think that Ward is the winner of the contest, with Evan not far behind.

Does the band write material while on the road, or do you prefer to dedicate time somewhere to hammer out new songs? And does Jay really write songs that are impossible to play? With so many different players and styles in the mix, how long does it usually take a song to go from inception to performance?

It’s almost impossible to write on the road. We’re much more productive with a little time off. Sometimes Jay will come up with a song that’s too difficult to play comfortably, too long, or in a guitar tuning that we can’t really re-create live, without a lot of stalling for time. It can take a long time for a song to reach performance stage, because some songs are just easy to work on and some aren’t. A great sign for this newer batch of songs is that they’re mostly very easy to find arrangements for; that means that we’re all thinking pretty well alike, and all like the new songs a good deal. That’s why we have so many of them worked up so soon after their conception.

Any plans in the works for a new album that you can share with JLC fans? What are the goals that the band would like to accomplish in the next year that you feel are the next logical steps in JLC’s progression?

We’d love to have a new album by the end of 2003. I am almost positive that we’ll reach this goal. Most of the songs are there. Whether or not we’ll be signed, we don’t know. We’re going to China, and hopefully Japan, in the winter; I’m hoping there will be more trips like that soon. If life truly does swing in a yin and yang direction, we’re due some very good times, and that’s always good news for our fans. Happier rock and rollers equals happier fans. I think that 2003 will be another recording year, another big year for something new, and full of lots of exciting changes. How’s that for a positive attitude?

[ Website: www.jumplittlechildren.com ]

Matt Mrowicki
Matt Mrowicki [[email protected]], is an Internet entrepreneur and owner of Chorus and Verse. In 2002, he founded Impression Technologies LLC (www.imprtech.com) a digital design company offering website development, graphic design, online marketing, social media and technology consulting. He has been interviewed on topics ranging from how bands can best use their websites for promoting their music to current trends in social media. He has successfully launched over 100 websites and branding projects for clients and continues to develop new online opportunities and promote effective uses of technology and online media.
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