Jonathan Tyler, formerly of Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights, has parted ways with the band’s name “Northern Lights” and with his major label deal with Atlantic Records. With renewed creative control, Tyler returns to his gritty, Americana roots in his recently released LP Holy Smokes, a record five years in the making that takes a huge step away from the modern rock approach of his last release, Pardon Me. The tracks on Holy Smokes are influenced by blues and folk and characterized by a smooth, Southern flow, ranging from the up-beat “Honey Pie” to the sweet and solemn “To Love is to Fly”—a duet with Nikki Lane.
The closing track of the album, “Everything Was Cool in 2002,” is accompanied by a stripped-down music video recorded live at Modern Electric Sound Recorders in Dallas, Texas. Recorded on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the video shows the band as the organic, eclectic group of rockers audiences will see on Tyler’s upcoming tour.
Watch the music video for “Everything Was Cool in 2002” above, and check out an exclusive Q&A with Jonathan Tyler below.
Paste: The video for “Everything Was Cool in 2002” is a live recording filmed in Modern Electric Sound Recorders in Dallas, Texas, your hometown. What is unique about the music scene in Dallas, and how did that influence you as an artist?
Jonathan: Dallas is well known for sports, and I think if you ask most people what they know about Dallas they will bring up people like Mark Cuban and The Mavericks. A lot of people think of Austin when they think of Texas music, but what’s cool about Dallas is that underneath the sports umbrella is a really good, thriving music scene where guys like Leon Bridges and Sarah Jaffe are coming out of and hanging out together. The studio Modern Electric is kind of the center, or nucleus, for a lot of the musicians to hang out with each other, party together, record and work together.
It is still a very big city here, it is definitely a major market. There is a small group, but it’s big enough that there’s a hip hop scene, southern rock scene that I’m a part of, alternative rock scene, country—there’s everything here, there’s pockets of all of it.
Paste: The video is more stripped-down and organic than the videos of Pardon Me. How did you leverage your new sound with the band’s image in music videos, appearances, album artwork, etc?
Jonathan: The last album was for Atlantic, and I feel like when we were trying to make our videos for that record they were still in this early 90s mentality, trying to make the bands look big budget and larger-than-life. We just did not have much creative control there.
In this go-around, because we have an independent deal with Thirty Tigers, we are at the helm of the creative side. I just try to make music, videos, artwork, really anything that I would see and feel like I would like and that interests me. With this particular song, we didn’t know we were going to do any sort of premiere. I wanted to do something that was very simple: here’s what the band looks like, here’s what we look like when we’re jamming. The whole base of it was no frills: what you see is what you get. It was a really quick, laid back sunday afternoon performance; we recorded it in about 2 hours with all the setup and everything.
When it came back, it looked pretty cool, and I thought this would be a good way to show people who are just getting turned on to the band what the band’s vibe is like. All the touring we’re about to do is as a full band, which is why I think this is a great video to put out because it shows the band and what we’re going to be taking out on the road.
Paste: What insight or wisdom did you gain from your time with Atlantic Records and subsequent break between records, and how did this inform your sound on Holy Smokes?
Jonathan: I’m still figuring that answer out as we go. I definitely recognize the power of the system, the big machine, to promote and market music and get it out there. At this point I feel really happy that I can hand my new music to my friends and have no excuses behind the sound. I can stand behind it. I feel really good about the music. I don’t know if it is going to get out there as much because there isn’t a massive corporate push. So part of me thinks that it may go unrecognized, but the people who are going to see it through Paste and different people putting it out are the ones we’re trying to go for anyways.
It’s just one of those things where I don’t really know the answer to which is better: being independent or being a part of a major label. But as a creative person, I felt really unhappy with the process of making a record with the people I was with before. It was more, in my opinion, at the time, and even still, important for me to make music that I’m really proud of than to be a part of that system.
I would love to be able to do both—make the music I really love and want to stand behind and be a part of that system. But, it’s more important to me to be able to really believe it and feel like there weren’t any compromises. I couldn’t go along with the committee of the five different A&R guys telling you what lyrics to change, what chords to add, what to sing about. I just didn’t feel like it was the way to go, and I think over the next ten years things will probably shift.
Paste: Five years after Pardon Me, do you see a shift away from the popularity of modern rock? Do you think your renewed singer-songwriter sound is more relevant in 2015?
Jonathan: It’s hard to say. I have a lot of views about the music industry and I still think it’s very largely controlled by music industry executive types. I think that for the most part the masses just buy whatever they’re being sold, and I think modern rock is pretty dead as a genre. On a whole, you don’t see a lot of it with what the mass media is pushing.
On the flip-side, there’s still lots of rock bands and artists that are making rock music, but its not getting the major money that country or hip hop is getting right now. I’m one of the guys that digs for music, goes to record stores and things like that, so a lot of times I don’t know what the masses are doing.
Paste: Attempting to balance loyal fans and new listeners, what are your aspirations for the band? Do you see any major musical festivals in your future?
Jonathan: Yeah, there are several things in the works. We are definitely playing the Americana Fest in Nashville which I’m really excited about. Americana Fest is a really cool up-and-coming thing happening in Nashville. We’re doing our seventh year at the Granada New Year’s Eve show in Dallas. Then we’re going out on a U.S. tour next year with a guy named Ron Pope.
I’m not really sure if I can say we have anything like Bonnaroo, I’m hoping something like that comes through. I don’t really know if it will. There’s one festival called The MusicFest at Steamboat Springs we do every year. It’s in Colorado in January. Otherwise I’m just trying to record another record in October or November.
Paste: In this album, you collaborated with Nikki Lane and Ray Wylie Hubbard. In the past, you’ve toured with everyone from ZZ Top to the Black Crowes. Considering your new sound, who would you like to see the band collaborate with or perform with in the future?
Jonathan: I would love to tour with the Rolling Stones more than anyone, and Neil Young. Those are my all time favorites. As for new bands, I’m a fan of Gary Clark Jr, Blake Mills, Jason Isbell and Hayes Carll. There are a lot of new artists that I’d like to tour with that are real possibilities.
Paste: What advice do you have for aspiring musicians trying to balance creative freedom and mainstream success?
Jonathan: Well, just keep your expectations in check because there are so many good artists that went unrecognized until they were dead. [Laughs] It’s true, just because it is really good doesn’t mean it’s going to blow up or that people are going to recognize it. If you are really after the pure creative path, you have to just make music for that purpose with no expectation of what’s going to happen.
Paste: So, what was so cool about 2002?
Jonathan: [Laughs] We were in high school, and the person I wrote the song about—we’re still friends—and I look back at that time and think about how much youth and purity and innocence we had before. Not getting what you want kind of brings you into adulthood.