Wake Up and Smell the Indie Pop with Jeanines

An exclusive RNR Globe chat between The Big Takeover’s Jack Rabid and New York’s buzziest buzz band

The Jeanines in concert / 2019

On their new, eponymous LP, buzzing New York indie-pop duo Jeanines sound fresh-faced, bubbly, effervescent, energetic, and full of vim ’n’ vigor, giddy-up, and get up and go… and a million other rock reviewer clichés that are actually true in their case!

The pair, Alicia Jeanine and older hand Jed Smith (also of Mick Trouble and My Teenage Stride), just released the debut album via the storied Slumberland imprint currently celebrating its 30th anniversary. And once heard, it’s impossible to dismiss as a typical, average, drab, dull, grey, dead, or even been-there-done-that sunny-guitar-band trifle. Jeanine’s vocals coo and purr like warm tea is being served with biscuits, a classic conviviality, and Smith’s guitars are ever so brightly jangly to go with his burbling, busy, spiky basslines and thumping, simple, quick drumming. Moreover, the whole shaking shebang seems suffused with a boisterous teenage effervescence (another one of those rock critic words that fit!) and singalong sense that’s been the hallmark of so many great, similar Slumberland bands, from the distant days of college radio, fanzines, and John Peel past of their label’s canon, right to today’s Spotify, YouTube and BandCamp present.

Plus, they’ve got two weapons. One, The Jeanines’ songs may be super-short, sweet, and single-mindedly straight to the point, eschewing drawn out passages, delayed payoffs, or ostentation—sometimes even too short, ending as you’re really surfing the high—but on each of their breezy tunes, unmissable hooks fly. Jeanines makes that case quickly, too, introducing itself with the one-two punch of “Either Way” and the Veronica Falls-esque “Winter in the Dark.” (That older London foursome was this writer’s favorite Slumberland act this decade, and remain badly missed.) There are also strong hints of another heralded self-titled label debut a decade ago, by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. (Label head Michael Schulman sure knows how to find ’em.) And two, their brisk, minor chord shorties belie a shimmering depth and entrancing ambiance, secreting a sense of surprise and bewildered wonder on the one hand, or acid tablets of romantic anxiety (“You always make me disappear”; “Open up your eyes/It’s time for you to wake up”) and regret (“I open my mouth and it’s too late/It’s all come out”) on the other. There’s meat on these familiar bones.

Finally, in interviewing the pair, they advertise a natural, amusing, almost silly chemistry between them, goofing around each other’s answers after giving straight replies, talking to each other as much as an interviewer until they make each other crack up. Can you tell they used to be an item? Call it familiar ease.

It all adds up to one of the more charming, frisky new bands—one that’s quick to get their peppy, melodic clutches on you. In that sense, they’re part of a long and winding continuum stretching back to the below-referenced Velocity Girl and Small Factory, ’80s English cult band The Siddeleys, whom they cover on the LP—look them up, kids!—and very early, pre-first LP (1982-1983) Smiths and 1979-1980 Orange Juice.

That’ll give a good ballpark, anyway! Their BandCamp page will do even more.

 

 

How did you hook up with Slumberland Records? I think your band compares favorably with some of the great acts in their history, from Velocity Girl and Small Factory and The Ropers days to Veronica Falls, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. In fact, “Winter in the Dark” heavily reminds me of Veronica Falls, who are sadly gone, too soon. Were you always friends with Mike [Schulman, owner], and/or well-steeped in the label’s releases? And who approached whom?

Jed: I suppose I should answer this one. Yeah, I’ve known Mike for a long time. Basically, we had put a couple of songs up on Bandcamp and Mike messaged me saying he was really into them. I asked him if he wanted to put out a record, and he said, “Yeah!” It was a pretty simple and quick thing, ha ha.

Alicia: That true—but it was pretty cool! I was excited and disbelieving about it for a while, ha ha.

Jed: Yeah, she was! I’m a huge Aislers Set fan, and obviously love Slumberland in general, so it’s neat!

Alicia: Same here!

Jed: The Veronica Falls thing makes sense, because we have a lot of minor key pop songs, though I don’t think we were ever intentionally channeling Roxanne [Clifford] and company.  But they’re wonderful!

 

Isn’t it great and rare when things happen like that? I mean, I remember from my own groups [drumming] in the ’80s and ’90s and ’00s, the hardest thing is to find someone to put out your records who have more resources and cache than the often dreaded fallback of putting it out yourself—especially if, back in those days, before streaming, your money for pressing and distribution was already gone or getting low, if you’d blown your budget making the [expensive] recording in the first place! But even today, with cheaper recording and Bandcamp and the like, it must be so hard to cut through the blizzard of endless bands to get anyone to listen to your recordings instead. It’s nice to have a little help in the effort, right?

Jed: Absolutely!

Alicia: For sure!

 

And did he say how he heard of you? He just knew you, Jed, from My Teenage Stride and Mick Trouble?

Alicia: Yes, it helped that he already knew Jed from Jed’s projects, and they were Facebook friends—so he saw when Jed posted our stuff, I think.

Jed: Yeah, I’d basically known Mike through Crystal Stilts and Cause Co-Motion, and some other bands I was friends with; and My Teenage Stride, I suppose.

 

Let’s talk creative process. Jed, your band Mick Trouble is an obvious Chords/Jam/Merton Parkas/Purple Hearts/Secret Affair ’80s English-type mod revival band. But what in your mind differentiates a My Teenage Stride type composition from a Jeanines one? Or do you and Alicia collaborate closely on the material? Or is it mostly hers?

Jed: It’s a real mix of processes.

Alicia: The songs all originate with me. And I bring them to Jed in varying states of completion. Then he helps me finish them or else collaborates on lyrics, or at the very least—which is a lot—writes bass parts and drum parts and all the other supporting parts. I write them on guitar and that’s it; and I’m pretty rudimentary at guitar!

Jed: Pretty much. Alicia’s only been writing songs for a few years, which is extremely impressive. But yeah, basically what she said. It’s a really enjoyable process for me; generally, my own stuff is completely one-man-band and me in the studio alone for hours. It’s really special to have this creative process with someone else. Writing songs or finishing songs with another person is a strange and cool thing to do. It’s intimate but also highly comedic.

 

So how did this start, anyway? What made you want to work together?

Jed: Alicia?

Alicia: We used to date. I had always wanted to be in a band and do music, but wasn’t sure how, and Jed really encouraged me. At first he didn’t want to play music together in a group for various reasons, but I started playing them with our friend, a bass player, and it was easiest/simplest/best for Jed to play drums with us and complete the group.

Jed: I could tell she was naturally musical, and I’m greedy when it comes to songs. If I suspect someone can make good songs, I want them to do it no matter what, and will push for them to do it. [Alicia laughs.] But yeah, we were a couple, and she was always saying, “How do you write a song? I want to write songs!” And I said, “You just do it.” And eventually, she did.

The Jeanines The Jeanines, Slumberland 2019

And having gotten the dating thing out of the way, you can’t break up the romance and thus the band with it, which can be so wrenching, like [Australia’s] the Twerps recently, and years ago, The Long Blondes, a remarkable band with two couples, and The Field Mice/Northern Picture Library! Etc.! Etc.!

Alicia: Very true! It’s been hard at times, but the musical relationship is too good to give up.

Jed: Yeah that is accurate. It’s very fulfilling, and I never say things like that.

Alicia: Very true!

Jed: Ha ha.

 

And to that end, not to pry about the end of your relationship, but I focus on the art instead of the gossip; and Alicia, you’ve said your lyrics are somewhat obsessed with death and the passage of time. But I hear more romantic angst and things that aren’t quite happening, or are not really working, on the self-explanatory “Hits the Bone,” and your cover of “Falling Off My Feet Again.” Am I wrong? Or is that just an alternate obsession of sorts?

Alicia: I agree. [Laughs.] Oh well, you know “Falling Off My Feet Again” is a cover by The Siddeleys [from the late ’80s London indie-popsters’ 1988 single and 1991 posthumous collection, Slum Clearance]. Well, romantic angst may be a byproduct or an accidental result! [Jack laughs.] I do keep the lyrics a bit vague on purpose, and I don’t like to express straightforward and potentially clichéd emotions; but the songs are very rarely about anyone or any situation in particular. I suppose there is some romantic angst imagery in some of the songs, though.

Jed: Yeah, I have wondered before about several songs, “Is this about us?” [Jack laughs.] But she insists they’re not and my lawyers have advised me not to press the matter. That is a comedy joke. [Laughter.]

Alicia: Some small bits may be inspired by you, but none are about you directly per se!

Jed: Again, my attorney has advised me not to comment, citing Robocop Vs. Ronny Cox, 1988. Oh, my goodness, I’ve opened up a can of worms here, haven’t I? That is also a comedy joke.

Alicia: No, no, just joking around!

Jed: Many comedy jokes happening! [Laughter.] Yeah, I mean the universal is usually the most personal. If you have a song that goes, “I rode a dinosaur”—no one’s going to be like, “Oh man, he’s singing about me!” [Jack laughs.]

Alicia: It really depends on what you mean by “rode” and “dinosaur.” [Laughter; rather risqué of them!]

Jed: Ha ha, Alicia, I was thinking the same thing. We must be bad people.

Alicia: Probably, but that’s OK! [Your author thinks, “I’m not touching this one.”]

Jed: These two schmendricks! 

 

[Ah, real New Yorkers, using Yiddish! For non-New Yorkers and those not fluent in the language, the word means “ineffectual, foolish, or contemptible people.”] Well now we’ve dispensed with that [funny and titillating food fight], there’re lot of C86 [English NME indie pop compilation] comparisons bandied about when discussing you. But for me, your style actually goes further back than 1986 U.K. bands, to the older Postcard Records/Orange Juice/Go-Betweens-like basslines you hear on songs of yours such as “Why”—those bands and Les Pattinson in Echo & the Bunnymen in turn got it from the Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth!—and their immediate successors, starting in 1983, The Smiths. Like your song “In This House”—that could be an early Smiths track produced by Troy Tate from their early try at recording their first LP, or like their song “Back to the Old House.”

Alicia: Jed came up with all the fantastic basslines. Jed, please speak to this.

Jed: Yeah there’s some of that in there, but moreover there’s a lot of Motown and Stax in my bass playing and drumming, which is also in most of the things you’ve mentioned. So it’s on the continuum. I mean, The Smiths’ rhythm section [bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce] is about as close to Motown as English musicians got in the ’80s!

 

I couldn’t agree more! It all goes back to Motown [and its house bassist, the late James Jameson]. Wasn’t [The Smiths’ 1983 second single] “This Charming Man” basically [The Supremes’] “You Can’t Hurry Love?”

Jed: Ha ha, yes! It was! Also, “Marianne” by the Four Seasons—they really ripped that one heavily for “This Charming Man!” But I’m also a Steve Cropper [Stax/Booker T & the MGs]/Sterling Morrison [Velvet Underground] acolyte, so a lot of my guitar stuff has that, too.

 

This discussion shows what staunch indie-pop and general music fans you are, a lot like my interview with Alvvays last year [for the cover story of Big Takeover #83 into #84]. Just as you cover total obscuros [to us yanks] like The Siddeleys, they do the Hummingbirds from Australia. And you do Dum Dum Girls, who were doing something similar to you earlier this decade. I feel like I can hear that kind of innate joy and snap in your playing like I hear in Alvvays; and like them, it traces back to your being such ravenous music fans.

Alicia: Thanks! 

Jed: Aw, thanks! I get that Alvvays song stuck in my head constantly! “Archie Marry Me” [from 2014’s Alvvays.] For some reason I assumed it was about Archie Moore [of Velocity Girl, the Washington D.C. band that also recorded for Slumberland, way back in 1990!].

The Jeanines

No, not about Archie Moore! Ha ha, that’s good. Much older Slumberland! But I know Archie, funny enough. In fact, I just saw him in D.C., because he came to our Springhouse reunion tour’s show with The Chills in February; I met him when we’d played with Velocity Girl three times, in D.C., Minneapolis with Belly, and New York in’ 92-’93. Superb gent for sure!

Alicia: Cool! He came to our show in D.C., too, just a few days ago! Unfortunately, our set was a cut short, but it was still cool.

Jed: Aw, he’s the greatest! I’m not surprised you’re pals. Music is a language, and stuff.

 

To paraphrase [Morrissey] The Smiths, again, “Music is a language, can’t you read?” [Laughter.]

Jed: Oh yeah! I know that. It’s actually “Nature is a language, can’t you read?” [from 1986 single “Ask”] 

 

Of course you know it! [Laughter.] Speaking of your recent gigs, I hear you only played a half hour on Saturday night at your show here in New York. Is that because your songs are so short? Or you want to leave them wanting more?

Alicia: Because our songs are so short, mostly. I think we probably played around nine songs at least? Yeah, probably 10 or more.

Jed: Yeah some of them are barely over a minute! I write short songs in general, but Jeanines songs are even shorter than what I usually do!—getting into earlier Robert Pollard territory.

 

It’s like Guided by Voices, right? I’ve read that Jed, you’ve liked them for a long time, probably as long as I—since [1992’s terrific] Propeller, though I’d reviewed older albums.

Alicia: I didn’t intentionally set out to write super short songs, but it kind of just turned out that way… I don’t really know how to write filler parts, and writing lyrics is hard, so I’m not trying to write many verses for a reason! Ha ha.

Jed: Yeah I’m a big GBV fan. [1993’s] Vampire on Titus through [1996’s] Under the Bushes [Under the Stars], especially!

 

I have one more question. Is it instructive that you covered Dum Dum Girls? That group and Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts and some others seemed to open up this kind of ’60s to post punk ’80s noise pop sound for the more general indie masses a decade ago, right? Though, Alicia, unlike them, your vocal style again reminds me more of early ’80s post-punk bands, mostly English, and more current singers like Emma Kupa from Standard Fare and more recently Mammoth Penguins.

Jed: I can see that. Yeah I mean Vivian Girls, Stilts, etc.—we’re all huge fans of ’60s music and it definitely shows up in all our stuff more than it does in “indie” music in general, for sure. I think that end of it comes more from me than Alicia, because she tends to write with an acoustic guitar and I’m always thinking about records and style.

 

Anything else to add? There must be something you wish I’d asked and would be really glad to talk about, actually!

Jed: Hmmmmmmm. [Thinks.]

Alicia: I don’t know! You really asked some specific and good questions! I agree with Jed on liking Vivian Girls and Stilts etc., a lot!

Jed: The ’60s aren’t going to ever go away as an influence on bands, because so many of the basic elements of popular music came about in that decade. Although we’re in a heavily ’90s period now as far as bands being influenced by the past!

 

Oh, and is this the band’s first interview? I couldn’t find anything online when I searched!

Alicia: Yes it is! Well, we did one podcast interview a while ago. But that’s it.

Jed: But other than that, yes! And we’re honored you were our first!

 

Any final thoughts? Something to sum up?

Jed: Hmmmm… Never give a sucker an even break? Sometimes dead is better? Life ain’t nothin’ but a funny, funny riddle? Thank god I’m a country boy? [Quoting John Denver’s 1975 hit, albeit it was written by John Martin Sommers.] 

 

Now who’s a schmendrick? [Laughs.] 

Jed: It’s a fair cop!

 

VIDEO: The Jeanines perform “Wake Up” at Alphaville in Brooklyn 6/22/2019

Jack Rabid

Jack Rabid is the founder, editor, and publisher of New York music magazine The Big Takeover. His writing has appeared in Interview, Village Voice, Creem, Spin, Paper, Trouser Press Record Guide, and Musichound, and he hosts 'The Big Takeover Show' on realpunkradio.com every Monday at noon. He also plays drums in Springhouse, now revived and touring with The Chills in early 2019.

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