It’s not totally uncommon to hear about a locally beloved act striking a deal with a major label. But by now, the outcomes of those deals are usually similar enough to inspire a collective knee-jerk reaction for fans receiving the news. That might have been the case for many in 2011 after learning that Nashville’s JEFF the Brotherhood had inked a deal with Warner Bros.
The band—comprised of two brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall—has traveled the DIY route for about a decade now, releasing their garage rock through their own award-winning label, Infinity Cat. After years of self-released albums, EPs, singles and self-financed tours (the guys played 400 shows in the last two years alone), it’s hard to see the duo looking back on a model that’s been pretty good to them so far.
Or maybe, as JEFF frontman Jake Orrall points out, that’s not such a hard choice to make—if you’re in the right hands.
“A lot of indie labels and labels asked what we were doing for our next record [after 2011’s We are the Champions],” Jake says. “We were like, ‘Well, we run our own label.’ Warner Bros. weren’t even the first label to contact us. We hadn’t considered signing to a label, but Warner said they didn’t care what way they were involved, they just wanted to be a part of what we were doing. So we said ‘What do you guys think you can bring to the table? Because we’re doing fine right now.’”
And so, after nearly two years of negotiations, both parties were happy. Warner was involved in distributing the band’s music—allowing for their just-released We are the Champions to get a global release—and Jake and Jamin would get to keep the creative freedom that helped carry the band this far. But it wasn’t long after that album’s release that the band was back in the studio, and the guys were pleased with some of the changes this time around, including not having to record everything themselves.
“The whole process was very quick,” Jake says. “That was the kind of thing we couldn’t do before, to hire someone to do it. It was pretty awesome.”
For starters, the band had the luxury of extending their time in the studio. That’s not to say that this major-label deal saw the Orralls tinkering with theremins, and they weren’t lugging grand pianos and full choirs in the studio. In fact, it’s easy to bump up your studio time—with things as simple as overdubs and a few auxiliary instruments, no less—when you’re used to recording an album in three days.
The result of that studio time is Hypnotic Nights, a direct, cranked-up summer album—although, as Jake puts it nonchalantly, that wasn’t really its inspiration: “I don’t even remember when we recorded it. Maybe in January? I don’t know—I don’t remember it being that cold.” And the album’s title really is about as simple as it comes off: “They’re pretty hypnotic jams. We got really hypnotic in the studio.”
Anthemic party tracks fill Hypnotic Nights, as evidenced in the album’s opening statements “Country Life,” “Sixpack” and “Mystic Portal II,” which talk dogs, guns, beer, sun and mystic portals. More importantly, you see the band calling upon new instrumentation—layered synth sounds, horns and female vocals—in this new realm of opportunity.
“We knew we had a lot more resources to work with,” Jake says. “We could bring in session musicians to play parts we couldn’t play, and stuff like that. We recorded some stuff that was pretty amazing that we couldn’t do before. One song that didn’t make it on the album, we got this guy to play a really Jethro Tull-style, breathy flute solo. That didn’t make it on the album. We didn’t finish it, but sometime we’ll finish it. The whole process was very quick. That was the kind of thing we couldn’t do before, to hire someone to do it.”
Hypnotic Nights not only had the band taking out an extended stay in the studio, it was also the first time they worked with a co-producer. For their entry into this realm, they worked with the The Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach—another garage-rooted musician that’s started to enjoy a little success. As Jake explains, the idea of having a co-producer wasn’t always his favorite, but it ultimately did shape the record in a positive way.
“Artists obviously are artists, and they get lost in their own heads,” Jake says. “They don’t necessarily know what will work best for everybody. It was really refreshing. Like [on “Mystic Portal II”] there’s a verse and then a crazy, freak-out part. Dan was like, ‘You know what you should do? You should just put an instrumental part between two verses. It will stick in peoples heads.’ At first I was like, ‘Fuck no, this song is this way for a reason.” But we changed it and it turned out really good.’”