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Nice Electricity: Inside Jawbone's Sizzling Old School Debut

Wednesday, 14 November 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Rob Blackham

Sometimes an album arrives from out of nowhere and knocks you off your feet. There’s something new, yet familiar, about its melodies, its heart-warming immediacy and the effortless chemistry that oozes from the bewitching songs within. We’re basically talking the musical equivalent of love at first sight, which is exactly what fans of bluesy rock ‘n’ roll and American roots music will doubtless feel after hearing Jawbone’s quietly magnificent self-titled bow.

If you know the history of this Anglo-Australian four-piece it’s no surprise they’ve emerged with one of the most complete debut records of recent times. Formed by long-time friends, former flatmates and on-off collaborators Marcus Bonfanti and Paddy Milner, it’s fair to say Jawbone aren’t exactly lacking in the department marked ‘musical experience’.  

Bonfanti is a British guitarist and singer who, over the last 15 years, has built a strong solo career and also worked as a sideman for artists such as Ginger Baker, Earl Thomas and the Animals’ Eric Burdon. On top of that, he currently fronts blues-rockers Ten Years After, stepping into the huge shoes of the late Alvin Lee and helping to keep their legacy alive. Milner, meanwhile, offers world-class piano playing and excels at boogie-woogie, blues, jazz and classical music. Alongside his own solo offerings, the singer-songwriter has backed icons like Tom Jones and Jack Bruce.

Joining that potent pairing are bassist Rex Horan and drummer Evan Jenkins, an Australian duo best known for their work with jazz pianist Neil Cowley. With all that combined talent, the results were perhaps destined to be extraordinary. Boasting a vintage sound that makes no concessions to modern trends, Jawbone’s debut references everyone from the Band (unsurprisingly, given the fact they’re named after one of the Americana legends’ early songs) and Little Feat to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and countless other classic artists. In a nutshell, it’s the kind of album they don’t make any more…but really should.

We spoke to Bonfanti and Milner while they were on tour in the Czech Republic about their shared history, the making of album number one and why its follow-up is already looming on what appears to be a very bright horizon.

The one word that immediately leaps out while listening to Jawbone’s album is chemistry. When did you first realise the ensemble, and the music, had that special X Factor?

Bonfanti: Quite early on. Me and Pad had these songs we’d written at Paddy’s house, very much piano, acoustic guitar and vocal based. We had these ideas of where it could go but hadn’t written drum parts and basslines or produced it in our heads.  When we got in the room with Evan and Rex and started working through the songs, that’s when we all realised we were on to something special because there was a really nice electricity in the room and everyone was throwing ideas out there. Things were happening very naturally. It was just a great experience. A lot of laughter and great results.

In terms of a rhythm section, you and Paddy have worked with a lot of the same guys in the past, particularly with Earl Thomas, and around the music scene in London. How did you end up recruiting Rex and Evan as opposed to any of those players?

Bonfanti: We’d sort of known them for a long time and had played with them individually and as a rhythm section a few times. They’re great musicians, but the main thing was the fact they’d been playing together for about 25 years, on and off. They’d known each other since they were really young and they’ve got this great telepathy and way of playing together that you don’t find in other rhythm sections. They’re a bit more unique because they know each other so well.  

You’re right, there were lots of people we could have called on. Lots of incredible musicians. But there’s something about the fact those two have this link that really appealed to what me and Pad were trying to do with this band, which was to have something very much based out of songwriting and songs, but also has the ability to, live especially, go places and be quite improvisational. Those two bring that element.  

When I recently spoke to Kenny Wayne Shepherd he alluded to the fact that just because you have a great drummer and great bassist doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be great together.

Bonfanti: No. It’s incredible. That’s the beauty of it all, really. Even with me and Pad, when we started writing the Jawbone album I was 100% sure that as soon as we started writing together the ideas would be flowing. But the first few attempts were tough. We didn’t get anything and were both disheartened and confused why when we should be able to write great songs together. It took about three or four sessions to get something we were happy with. It was Leave No Traces and once we’d got that down, suddenly the floodgates opened and we were able to go for it.

What influences do you all bring to the group and where do they overlap?

Bonfanti: The influences are pretty diverse. That was obvious when we visited a record store in Brno the other day and everyone went looking for some quite different things, trying to find some music from the local scene.  In this context with Jawbone the two we’ve spoken about most are Little Feat and the Band. That’s two all four members have listened to a lot.

I love old blues music, ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s stuff, and a lot of the bands coming out of America and the UK in the ‘60s. That’s where my go to place is. Rex is very much into avant-garde and contemporary classical music, but then me and him will have long talks about Tom Waits as well. Evan grew up playing a lot of jazz and went to a jazz conservatoire, but he listens to a lot of different styles, old funk music that we’ve never heard before

What were the musical and stylistic touchstones you referenced while forging the sound of Jawbone?

Bonfanti: We never went out of our way to make a record that sounded like ‘Music From The Big Pink’ or ‘Sailin’ Shoes’. Those words were never used in the studio. We just wanted to make a record that sounded like the four of us being creative.

Obviously, we overdubbed things afterwards and me and Pad took quite a lot of time over that, but even then we weren’t saying ‘Pad play a synth line that sounds a bit like Stage Fright’. We were letting things happen and didn’t have to rush it because we had the use of my brother’s studio. That meant we could be a bit slower, take our time and think about stuff more. I hadn’t really made a record like that before.

The album possesses a really warm, old school analogue feel. Slash said recently it’s very expensive to record on analogue these days, so how did you get that sound?

Bonfanti: We spent the money, mate. We recorded it in State of the Ark studio, which has the old EMI mixing desk in. When we got the desk mixes back they already sounded fantastic. We got the sounds right along the way but, also, we’re all playing vintage instruments that were built with love and care and sound great.

It was a mixture of all of that and then, when we did the stuff at my brother’s studio, he’s got a real plate reverb and it’s huge. He’s got vintage synthesisers, there’s an old Hammond in there as well. Then, when we went to mastering, we bounced it down to tape. At every point we were very sure no corners were cut and were doing it the best we could. We basically wanted to deliver a top-quality product.

You and Paddy have two very different voices that sound like they shouldn’t fit together, except they do. Why do you think that is and was it something you wanted to build the band’s sound around?

Bonfanti: You’ve hit the nail on the head. Me and Pad often talk about the fact we have really contrasting voices but when we sing together, somehow, it just sounds great and probably shouldn’t. Once you add Rex’s higher falsetto on top it’s got this really nice sound that I wouldn’t have predicted. But me and Pad, when we decided on this idea of Jawbone, wanted to do the double frontman thing because we’d both fronted our own bands for years so we’ve got a lot of experience in that. We really wanted to explore the two-vocal element of things.  

Get What You Deserve, the whole song is pretty much in two-part harmony. As is Bet On Yesterday, there’s big sections of two part harmony. We thought it was an interesting thing because there’s not a lot of bands, especially recently, that have that and it’s something that’s got lost a little bit. When I listen to the Band, sometimes I’d think ‘who is singing? That could be Levon.’ With Little Feat, when Paul Barrere and Bill Payne started singing, sometimes you’d get a bit confused. But I like it, man.  There’s so many different colours and shades to people’s voices, why not use them to do different things?

I love the way your voices switch during the verses of Leave No Traces. How do you decide who sings which part?

Bonfanti: A lot of the time me and Pad will be writing songs, we’re writing new songs at the moment to do another record next year at some point, and it will be like ‘You sound much better than me singing that particular verse and maybe I’ll take the next one.’ As you work together you get to know each other more vocally and that’s why the vocals are sounding better than ever at the moment. We’ve been on this tour for a long time now and, singing every night, we’re getting to know exactly where each other’s voices sit and how to adapt the ways we sing individually to sound better as a whole.

The arrangements on Family Man are wonderful and it’s got a great vocal hook.  How was that written?

Milner: Family Man was a song I brought in with most of the chorus written and the concept. I wrote it initially inspired by an Italian mafia kind of thing, shows like the Sopranos and mafia films, imagining what it would be like to be born into a situation, wanting to get out of it and not being able to. But then I guess it has a double meaning, you can apply it to regular family life. Perhaps you’re trapped in a situation you want to get out of but aren’t able to. You can read it in those two ways.

Get What You Deserve is the most lyrically aggressive song on the album.  Was it inspired by anyone in particular?

Milner: It was inspired by an experience Marcus and I had at some point in the past. I’m not going to point any fingers but in the music industry there’s all kinds of people and characters you end up working with, one way or another. It’s not necessarily applicable to one person, even if that was our inspiration, but it’s a recurring theme in the music industry and I guess in any professional situation.

How’s the tour been going and which songs are taking on a life of their own when you play them live?

Milner: The tour’s going great. We did six or seven dates in the UK in September but, apart from that, we’d only done the odd gig the last year or two. It’s been great for the band, getting the set together and really gelling. As you say, things change a little bit and we’re expanding the songs for the live set.

For example, on When Your Gun Is Loaded we’ve added a whole outro with a big vocal thing. Family Man goes off into this psychedelic freak out at the end. There are all these little arrangements, a lot of vocal stuff. With Rex as a regular fixture we’re really making use of his vocals and bringing in lots of extra harmonies for him. The vocals really are becoming a key part of the sound.

'Jawbone' is out now.

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