For over a decade, Johnny Whitney and Cody Votolato were members of the Seattle aggregate The Blood Brothers, a band whose immolation of the hardcore blueprint and a forward-in-all-directions aesthetic gained them a league of ardent fans. As a member of Pretty Girls Make Graves, J Clark brought noise, texture and pop sensibilities over the course of three albums before the band adjourned two years ago.
When The Blood Brothers went out on what would be their final European tour, Clark accompanied the band as a stage tech. As stress fractures were becoming apparent in the Blood camp, the three struck up a friendship, a “new rocking alliance”, if you will. Eschewing such antiquated concepts as the farewell tour, posthumous releases and specially designed commemorative laminates, singer Whitney and guitarist Votolato began writing songs in the spring of 2007, and were soon joined in the new venture by multi-instrumentalist Clark. “Jaguar Love was a name we could all agree on,” Whitney says. “We wanted to find a name that had a positive feel without being corny.”
Whitney describes the winter 2008 recording sessions for Take Me To The Sea as “insular and liberating.” In addition to their respective roles, Whitney contributed keyboards and Votolato played some bass. But for all intents and purposes, Clark was the ship’s captain, playing drums, bass and keyboards, as well as supervising all of the recording, mixing and engineering for the disc at Seattle’s Two Sticks Audio (producer John Goodmanson was called in to assist with recording the drums).
When new groups are spawned from the members of respected ones, the results can be somewhat tenuous (ask any aging prog-rocker who bought that first Asia album). Sure, as Blood Brothers, Whitney’s idiosyncratic vocals were jarring and exhausting, while Votolato generated six-stringed righteousness that seemingly channeled Greg Ginn, Captain Beefheart or Andy Gill (sometimes all in one song). Likewise, Clark’s guitar and keyboard work lifted Pretty Girls past expected ‘indie’ signifiers. With resumes that are completely above reproach. It was essential that Jaguar Love find a balance between their new music as well as reconciling listeners’ pre-conceived notions of how said music should/could sound.
“I think anytime anyone approaches a new record by any group of musicians expecting it to be similar to a previous recording, they are setting themselves up for disappointment,” says Whitney. “Yes Jaguar Love is much different than any Blood Brothers or Pretty Girls Make Graves records, but there are going to be some inevitable similarities. We definitely set out to write some songs with pop sensibilities, as opposed to the unhinged quality of our previous bands. When you listen to songs like ‘Jaguar Pirates,’ ‘Humans Evolve Into Skyscrapers’ or ‘Vagabond Ballroom,’ we haven’t abandoned [our past] entirely.”
“Over the years, I feel like I’ve simplified everything with each new song I write,” reflects Votolato on finding freedom in dialing things down a few notches. “It’s really fun to be able to write in a traditional way. I’ll probably always wig out a bit, but I really like simple guitar playing and chord progressions. ‘Bonetrees And A Broken Heart’ and ‘Georgia’ are good examples of songs that are little more on the traditional side of things.”
Take Me To The Sea’s 10 tracks are bracing and alluring, and as surreal as they are anthemic. The opening chugger, “Highways Of Gold,” was one of the first songs the trio ever wrote, successfully navigating the rails between speeding-ticket frenzy and perfect pop forever. “Bats Over The Pacific Ocean” was Whitney’s take on a folk ditty, but when his bandmates got on it, the tune was transformed into the amphetamine-abusing great-grandson of the Moody Blues’ “Question.” The Votolato-initiated “Vagabond Ballroom” will sound great alongside such neo-classic-rockers as the Mars Volta and the Raconteurs. Clark’s Hammond and hard-drive powered “Humans Evolve Into Skyscrapers” ponders a world where Joe Cocker’s classic Mad Dogs And Englishmen cavalcade returns from the past to share a train ride with Daft Punk.
Now, looking over that last paragraph, there are several classic-rock references, one techno mention and one unapologetic rendering of the word “pop.” If that mélange of musical touchstones doesn’t convince you that Jaguar Love are writing their own rulebook, you must think gas prices are coming down and Jesus is on her way back. As much as they’ve grown as musicians and friends, Jaguar Love are all about ripping off the rearview mirrors and going forward at top speed; something they’ll gladly show you later this summer, when they hit the road augmented by guitarist Craig Bonich and keyboardist Jessie Nelson, both on loan from funky Britpop warriors Head Automatica. But 47 minutes after you’ve been taken to the Sea, you gotta wonder: Are J-Love distancing themselves from an underground scene that often champions the mediocre? Are they rocking with a clean slate? Do these things even matter when the music is so thong-twitchingly good?
“We’re not reacting to anything,” says Whitney calmly. “We wouldn’t couch what we do in terms like that.”