BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
The lifespan of musical chameleons in today’s far-too often cookie-cutter, bread and butter music industry is almost always measured by a single-digit number of album releases, followed by a swift return to obscurity. Florence, AL foursome The Pollies, captained by lead singer and chief songwriter Jay Burgess, is banking on sticking around for a while by bucking the system. How? How about by shedding the sonic skin it wore on its 2012 full-length debut, Where the Lies Begin, with the 10 true gems on their sophomore set, Not Here, available September 25 on Florence, AL’s Single Lock Records and Nashville-based Thirty Tigers.
A tiger doesn’t change its stripes, but Burgess, who writes the lion’s share of the band’s tracks, says it was vital for The Pollies to wade into previously uncharted waters on Not Here. “On our records, we always try to shake up the landscape. On this one, we incorporated a lot of elements that we normally wouldn’t think about using. It changed the atmosphere of the music and pushed it in a different direction.” If past is prologue, one should assume that The Pollies will not be here occupying this particular musical space for long, but for now, Not Here is, well, hear to stay for 10 very good reasons.
Jay, I guess I have to start our conversation by saying thank you for this new album, Not Here, which will be here on September 25. To me, every song took me on a lyrical and sonic sojourn to visit a person or place I was excited to meet or see. Which is more inspiring or challenging for you, writing about people and places you know, or those you don’t?
Writing about things that I know is a little bit easier for me to do, but at the same time most of that stuff I try to maybe make it a little more abstract, where it’s more of a soft story than it is a real story. I try to find little pieces that might make it a little more interesting, or just not make it as apparent as what I’m talking about. Writing about the places and people I don’t know or haven’t been through is harder for me because I haven’t been there (laughs). Like “Jackson,” the first song on this record, is about Jimmie Lee Jackson from Selma, AL. I thought I knew everything about the civil rights movement and kinda what happened, what caused this and what the outcome was and so on and so on. I remember reading this article about two or three years ago about Jimmie Lee Jackson, and I had never heard the story before in my entire life. It kind of put a lot of things together for me, especially with Selma [the Martin Luther King Jr.-led march from Selma to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge]. It kind of opened the door for me; all of that explains a lot. I knew nothing about the first march across the bridge when the police just started brutally beating people. That story was very interesting to me, so to write a story about it, it seemed a little hard cuzz like I said I wasn’t there. So to answer your question, it’s definitely easier to me to write about things I know than things I don’t.
I’d love to talk to you about every song on this moving album, but I’m glad you started with “Jackson,” which of course is the opening track and one I was going to ask you about. To me, it’s a story about an unsung American hero, not just a civil rights hero. One of the things that I admire most about you and your band is that you seem to be swimming upstream in the raging river that is today’s music business. I reference that in terms of you guys blurring musical genres. Having said that, do you ever stop and think about the inherent career danger of not fitting into an industry-defined format?
Ah, yeah, I mean, probably not as much as I should. To me, today, with the current state of the music business in general, there are a lot of bands out there that, from song to song, is different. I think when you do it that way you just gotta make sure that the album flows well even though you’re going in and out of these genres. But at the same time, like, I’ve had this conversation with a couple friends of mine on a regular basis about just music in general; like what is after digital. But we also have the conversation about the current state of the actual music industry and the way people listen to it and look at it. Now it just seems like everybody’s attention span is so short. It’s like they’re waiting for the next thing. Like I can remember being a kid and waiting months on top of months for the next Nirvana record. And it was such an exciting thing when they released a video on MTV. And you’d set your VCR to record it so you could watch it a thousand times. Nowadays it’s just like, it feels like people are into something for like maybe a week, and they’re like, alright, when’s your next record coming out? I feel like what’s good about what some of the artists are starting to do, is doing whatever they wanna do, which I feel like that’s kinda the thing behind The Pollies. I don’t write for a record; I write to write. And as far as genres and worrying about stuff like that, I don’t think we need to worry about it.
You mentioned you have conversations with people about music; obviously I have those same conversations, and in them I argue that the best bands have always been about putting the muse first; genres be damned. I’m thinking about everybody from The Beatles to U2, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, etc. These artists, album to album and song to song, often times went all over the place. The commonality today is that good music is still good music, but the difference is that the business has changed; and the attention span, as well (laughs). I want to quote something you said in your bio: “Love lost is what drives the record lyrically. The record isn’t just about losing love, it’s about surviving the aftermath. I bring that up in the context of the song “Lost,” which I understand came together following a conversation with a friend. Do you wanna share some of that conversation with us, and talk about “Lost?”
A couple of years ago one of my best friends fell on hard times with the relationship with his wife at the time. I’d never been through that type of stuff, and then watching him go through it, and then shortly after that, going through it myself. Your mind is going in a thousand different directions on what you did wrong, not what the other person did. Even though you have all these people telling you that this person is in the wrong, it’s what you did. You’re making it to be your fault. One night me and him got some drinks…and at the end of that conversation things started hittin’ home…and as soon as he left I grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and wrote that song within 10 or 15 minutes. To me, “Lost” is about surviving love more than it is about losing it.
These types of songs are universal. Now you co-produced Not Here with Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes. Why was Ben best suited to help you tell these stories?
Ben’s always been there; he was there on the first record, too. He used to work at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals…he was the house engineer. When FAME would close, he would get some of his friend’s bands to come in; basically sneak us in without anybody knowing, and then we would record at night. So we go back to those days.
Trust, for sure, but I think it’s more about being honest. If you hire a producer, you’re obviously hiring him because you want his ears, you want his mindset, you like what he does, and you want him to help you get to the end of your project. So with that comes honesty. Usually what Ben does is he’s really good at telling me no (laughs).
One of the key things about a producer is getting someone who doesn’t tell you what he thinks you want to hear.
Let me ask you about “Games.” Musically it fits into a sonic sweet spot between Wilco and The Monkees, and that’s a compliment, Jay (laughs). I don’t know how familiar you are with The Monkees, other than “I’m a Believer,” or whatever, but if you dig deeper into their stuff there are some really, really great songs in there. This song “Games” is maybe the most upbeat tune on the record. Would you agree?
I mean, yeah, it’s definitely the most poppy-sounding one on the record, I would guess.
And that’s where a little bit of The Monkees vibe comes in for me. Tell me about “Games.”
I’m a huge Big Star [7os Memphis-based power pop band] fan, and that song I really wanted it to be poppy sounding. But it’s basically about after you’ve made your way through all the bull s**t of the love stuff, and you’re back to square one.
Another standout for me is “Losers,” which to me sonically harkens back to vintage Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers because it’s equal parts swampy and psychedelic at the same time. Is that a fair comparison to make?
Yeah, yeah, for sure. That one’s actually been sitting around for a long time, and a friend of mine is who really made me sit down and write it. I liked it, but, maybe it just didn’t feel like me, you know, because I go through these phases of, like, man I really wish I could do like some really heavy fuzzed-out rock. That’s how it kind of started off, and I was kinda like, eh there’s no way I could pull it off, and I remember showing him the riff one night, and he was like, man you really gotta write this. And he stayed on me for about a year, and finally we were at the studio one night, and he was like, can we record that song, and I said yeah, sure. Sonically, it’s just like a garage rock song, I guess. But it’s basically about the normal musician/artist type thing where your family really don’t get it (laughs); why are you living poor? You could be doing so much better getting a job doing what your high school mate does and make a really good living and have a family and settle down and get fat and sit in a recliner. So it’s kinda like me going through that in my head, I guess.
I’ve been in the radio and music business for a long time and I’ve heard the same thing: why don’t you get a real job? I put two kids through college, so I think I’m okay. I don’t have the vacation home by the lake, but I wouldn’t trade that for the joy and the pleasure of doing what you love and loving what you do.
I think that’s the part that they really don’t get. I think a lot of people, especially in America maybe, they just don’t understand. I think about it from time to time, like, maybe I should just go do something in construction or something where I’m making X amount of dollars a year, but the more and more I think about it, it’s like, man I will hate myself for the rest of my life if I have to sit there and do that. It’s just not for me.
At that point you would be making a living, you wouldn’t be living a life. Before we wrap our conversation, I wanted to ask you to introduce us to the other members of The Pollies.
The members who played on the record were Reed Watson who played all the drums, Matt Green who played the other guitar stuff and sang some harmonies on it, Daniel Stoddard who played some piano, organ, pedal steel and guitar throughout the record, Chris James who played bass and Ben Tanner who played piano, organ and a small percentage of percussion stuff.
Finally, Jay, for those who’ve never heard your 2012 album, Where the Lies Begin, tell us how it and Not Here differ.
Where the Lies Begin is a lot rawer sounding. I’ve never been much on really pristine production; I feel like it hides some of the good flaws in it. As far as like musically, I would say maybe as far as a change, maybe this one’s not as Alt-Country as the first record.
Jay, thank you again for time. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Again, Not Here is out on September 25.
Awesome. Thank you, man.
Oh, you know what; one more quick question. Are you still based in Florence, AL?
Yeah, yeah. Or Muscle Shoals. We used to say Muscle Shoals because the guys are so spread out. So, Florence or Muscle Shoals, whatever you wanna call it.
I can remember going out on the road when I was real young and you can tell somebody, I’m from Florence, AL and they don’t have a clue where you’re talking about, but if you said Muscle Shoals, they lit up and instantly would just want to talk about music.
Yeah, that’s great. Hey, if you have a second, I’d just like to ask you one more question. You mentioned growing up and we’re talking about the incredible heritage of Muscle Shoals and that area; did you have the proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment, as far as hearing a song or going to a concert, or hearing an album that either you bought or was sitting around your house, that looking back now, you said to yourself, gosh I wanna do that; I wanna make music. Did you have one of those moments?
I mean, yeah, of course. It’s probably stereotypical to most people my age that are in the business; it was Nirvana. The crazy thing was that it wasn’t “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I can’t remember what song it was but it was Nevermind, for sure. I remember begging my mom, that day, to take me to the local record store to buy that album. That’s how important it was. But yeah, Nirvana, when I was like eight or nine, was the one that did it for me. And I can remember my mom would go on these trips and she’d always bring back like a really small thing; she’d call it a surprise. One time she brought back The Beatles Please Please Me album. So she puts it in and we’re listening to it and I can remember loving it at first listen, but acting like I hated it because I wanted to listen to In Utero (laughs). And then she caught me like one o’clock in the morning in my bedroom jamming out to Please Please Me, and she was like, I thought you hated that (laughs)? That’s how I got into The Beatles, but Nirvana kicked open the door.
Oh man, I’m so glad I asked you that question because that is a great story. And it all goes back to The Beatles, doesn’t it?
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Alright, well thank you again, and congratulations on this record.
Well thank you, sir. Bye.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Jay Burgess of The Pollies, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.