Berkeley New Wave favorites from the 90s return with a new, progressive sound on American Canyon
The first incarnation of California’sThe Jenny Thing came together on the UC Berkeley campus in 1991.
Matt Easton, a guitarist, singer and songwriter, met guitarist Shyam Rao when they were living in the same dormitory. “We were 18 and aspiring songwriters,” Easton recalled. “Shyam was a great guitar player and knew how to put a song together. I was more of a lyricist. As soon as we had a few tunes together, I contacted Ehren (Baker, bass player) and (drummer) Mike (Phillips) and pulled them in. We made some demos, played clubs in the Bay Area and cut an album, Me. It was semi-acoustic and a bit stilted. We’d only played a couple of live shows at that point.”
The quartet loaded up a van, toured up and down the West Coast and made two more albums – Closer and Closer and Nowhere Near You – before calling it quits. “On Closer, we sounded like a real rock band. All the songs were perfected at live gigs. By the time we made Nowhere, we knew were weren’t going to make it, despite surviving one round on Star Search. The record was more progressive and confident, a good parting shot. Some of us were starting families and a couple of us left California. I got a good day job, but kept writing songs. Eventually, I set up a home studio to record my ideas.”
In 2015, everyone in the band was living in the Bay Area again. “I showed Shyam some of the songs I was working on. Once I had an idea, we’d work it over, deconstruct and rearrange it. Then we’d bring in Ehren and Mike and jam on it, cooking everything down and adding textures. Sometimes Ehren would record his bass parts on his iPad and we’d edit it in. If we didn’t have a song ready, we’d toss ideas around. We weren’t thinking about a reunion, or an album, until we wrote ‘American Canyon.’ It came together in one day and had a sound and an intensity that surprised us.”
“American Canyon,” an anti-war song, heavy on synthesizer and pulsing bass lines, with a combination of real drums and percussion loops. It gave the band a new direction and a new sonic landscape to explore. “Once we had that sound fixed in our minds, we knew it was time to make an album. You can still hear the voice of the players, and our quirks and fingerprints all over it, but we didn’t of want the songs to sound like any specific band, including ourselves. The album is more spacious and darker, the performances more arch and exaggerated. We’re not trying to capture the sound of a band in a club – it’s more cinematic. Like folk songs, but using digital technology to be more progressive and modern.”
VIDEO: The Jenny Thing “American Canyon”
The concise tracks on American Canyon cover a lot of musical and emotional ground. Although it was written before the pandemic, “Lightfield” could be a commentary on the global struggles of the past year. Ominous synthesizers and a rumbling bass open the track before Rao’s chiming guitar appears, riding Phillip’s new wave backbeat. Easton’s vocal brings the lyric’s message of grief and hope to life. “The song is about the tension between hanging on and letting go, expressing yearning and loss, mixed with celebration.” The funky R&B of “More All The time” bubbles along on Phillip’s stuttering rhythms and the heartbeat of Baker’s bass. Synth effects underscore Easton’s bleak vocals as he bemoans an affair that’s never going to happen. “Waiting for the Knife” is a cryptic love song written after the Covid lockdown, which may account for the apocalyptic synthesizer textures and Easton’s aching vocals. “It’s a song about the distance between the American dream and the reality we’re living.”
The band released the album a few weeks ago on their own label. They’ve been promoting it by putting tracks online and working to get placements in films and TV shows.
“We’ve landed one song on a movie soundtrack and we’ve gotten a few nibbles from other filmmakers,” Easton concluded. “Making another record is the next thing on our agenda. We’re working on that. I don’t see us touring with any seriousness, even after the lockdown is over. I think recording is where it’s at for now.”