UCR INTERVIEW: Matt Easton of The Jenny Thing

“The Jenny Thing came together on the Berkeley campus of the University of California in 1991 when singer/guitarist Matt Easton met guitarist Shyam Rao. Matt and drummer Mike Phillips had grown up together, and both had been friends with bass player Ehren Becker since junior high.”

The Jenny Thing released three albums throughout the ’90s and received extensive airplay on college radio. They toured primarily in the west and performed at colleges and clubs like The Roxy and The Troubador in Los Angeles.

The band has reunited and have just released their first album since 1999. American Canyon is available wherever you purchase or stream music.

I had the opportunity to visit with Matt Easton, vocalist/ guitarist/ songwriter of The Jenny Thing. He shared stories of his first concert, best performing experience, and how American Canyon came about. It was a real pleasure to talk with him. Enjoy!

Interviewed by Kevin Rolfe

UCR: I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. This is an interview I’ve been looking forward to just because when I learned that I’d be interviewing you, I went back and listened to your back catalog and I remember your album that came out, Not your first album. But the second one. 

The Jenny Thing Photo Credit: Olivier Riquelme

Matt Easton:  Oh, you’re kidding. That’s so cool. 

UCR: I’m not sure where I heard you but I recognize some of those songs. And so I was excited to see, after all this time, you guys getting back together and doing this. 

Matt Easton: So nice. Very cool. 

UCR: Congratulations on all of that. I got a sneak peek of America, American Canyon. And I want to discuss that EP for sure, but first, after things ended around 99 did you think “Well, that’s my music career.” or did you continue on in music? What happened after that?

Matt Easton: Yeah, good question. I mean, certainly, the band went completely defunct. Although I am always quick to add that the friendships within the band have remained intact, before, during, and after. And in many ways I think, once we were five years out of the band or 10 years out of the band, we sort of just appreciate each other more you know? You sort of realize that, great friends that you get to do interesting stuff with are actually unusual and very valuable, right? So you sort of figure that out.

UCR: Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate that when you’re in the moment and really working super hard at trying to make this happen. And then afterwards, it’s like wow, we were part of something pretty cool together.

Matt Easton: Yeah, yeah. It’s true when you’re in it, you’re of course very close to every little thing you do, and you spend probably way too much time together. So there are other things that go into that. But yeah, as far as continuing, Shyam Rao, the guitarist essentially, although he plays very little guitar on this record, and I think I play even less. It’s not a very heavy guitar record. He’s sort of the guitarist, we’re all sort of playing everything these days.

He and I both sort of demo we sort of have an ongoing you know, just song demo habit that we kind of keep up of varying quality of varying quantity. But I mean, for my part, my house is very musical. My kids are both very serious musicians. So there’s three of us that are playing daily. And there were a few stretches in the middle there, kind of early and mid-2000s, I did some writing for myself, and I had a little acoustic duo with another person at a point there. And so yeah I mean, I’ve always been sort of nibbling at it, but not with this much seriousness, as we took on this time.

UCR: So was there just a point where, because it sounds like one of the band members moved for a job, and it just kind of feel like “Look, we gave this a really good try and good run.” I mean you had success, but maybe it didn’t launch into the stratosphere for you hoped.  So did you just jump a career like a “normal person”? 

Matt Easton: Yeah. Yeah, we’re yeah, we’re all normal people, that’s for sure. When Sean went off to grad school that was sort of the, you know, that sort of either broke or paused. I mean, it was a long pause. But yeah, it paused the songwriting core. That’s really kind of at the heart of the band. We sort of work at the rate that the two of us are writing, and so what fixed that was conversely him moving back to California about I guess, six years ago now.

Of course, we all wanted to get back together and hang around and shoot the breeze and everything. But he and I did I would say gradually, but efficiently, we kind of got back into like, okay, we can write together and we were still quite compatible, and then somewhere around, I want to say 2017ish, we actually wrote the song “American Canyon”.

And that really kind of clinched it, it was sort of like I mean, we were a little surprised by the sound in some ways, and we also were delighted by the quality. It was just sort of like, this thing’s got like a life of its own. And we need to like chase this down really hard. And I think it also very quickly made us snap back into shape on all the other stuff that we had kind of in the pool of songs that we’ve been working on together on and off at that point.

Maybe half of those ended up on the record, but it was also the one where we said these things need some rewriting, rearranging. I rewrote a lot of the words. I sort of stitch together a lot of the themes across songs after that point. So that was like the proof of concept. It was like, “American Canyon” was like time to you know, time to work harder and catch this wave.

UCR: I can hear what you’re saying. I don’t know if it’s just by happenstance with “American Canyon” being the middle song of the whole track list. But it kind of really is like the cornerstone you know for the rest of the album. So if that was the song that made you feel like, “Oh we can do more of this. And do it in a really quality way”. It totally makes sense to me, just listening to that song.

Matt Easton: Yeah, yeah, now I think you’re keyed into it that’s totally right. 

UCR: And I do have to say, just speaking of the tracklist, I feel like the order has such an awesome flow to it. With the opening song, “Paper Angel”, like the way it starts, and just kind of the way it goes, it’s one of those songs where you’re like, “Okay, I’m in I got to listen to this whole album.” It’s such a smart way to start things off.  Then each song leads into the mix.  

Matt Easton: We were pretty conscious of that. Again it was sort of like, sort of defining what the ark was.  It was kind of a two-way two way process. Like the songs were telling us what order and we were telling the songs, what order and play. The first song is supposed to feel almost like a, I call it sort of like a cotton candy.

Like you know, like disco, Jenny thing. It sort of sounds like the old way we would play live. But like really hyped up and kind of neon. I would say not aggressive in terms of hard rock, but I think it has an I think as an aggressive psychology, it’s kind of in your face. And it’s almost like a theme song. It almost feels like a little bit of a jingle or something. It’s the launch. It’s like a welcome to the circus kind of song. 

UCR: So you guys are writing and you’re putting this album together. I think part of the thing that I find so interesting, so I’ve had friends and colleagues that have been in bands that had moderate to very small success, especially compared to what you guys have done. Then they think well, let’s get together and give it another run. But they’re playing at the pizza place down the street you know? Of at their friend’s backyard. You guys are really doing this. You’re getting press and you’re getting reviews and an interview.  How did that all come about? Did you go back to your label? How did you get to the point where we’re now talking?   

Matt Easton:  The lens of doing this from you know, starting with the live show, was very much our lens when we were 22 and running around playing live a lot and all that. It is funny that it’s all been about the material. And much less about the live delivery or like who we are or like what scene we’re a part of. We’ve ended up with several important collaborators.

The director, who directed the video for “American Canyon” partnered with us on that and did really amazing work. Far, far beyond I think really anything he’d done in this type. He’s done longer-form stuff, but I think for its type, it’s his pinnacle, it’s absolutely our pinnacle. We’ve never done a music video other than you know, like in the back of a local access cable TV station. That was our level when we were you know like, 18 to 20. 

I think this project sort of has like a, it has it a core story, and people really like rallied around it. I mean, we’ve self-funded some of the like PR stuff. But also, we have feedback that we’re getting a much higher hit rate than the typical sort of cold presentation. And I think it really is the material. I don’t mean to say the material meaning like, it’s because we made such a great record. I hope it’s good.

But it really is like a passionate and somewhat like and I want to say psychedelic, and I don’t mean drugs. But I do feel like it’s like a passion project and it’s also got this sort of like big psychology to it. I really feel like it was like doing art to us. And we were doing art to it. And it wasn’t just sort of like let’s jam it was it was much more like let’s deep dive into imagery, sound. Like making a sound movie almost. We don’t know that much about film. In fact, I probably know just enough to be dangerous. I know enough to know that I shouldn’t be charged with film. Especially after making the video with Ramesh Nicolas Iyer who’s the director.

We kind of came into it pure. “American Canyon” is kind of written in a single chord, almost a blues song.  It doesn’t have a lot of chord changes. Often we have sort of clever, in the past, sort of clever songs and clever chord changes. And “American Canyon” just has this like, kind of drone to it. And in that droning, the words that come out are these images of the architecture and battle and like actually, pleasure in battle, which is it sort of feels like a weird kind of taboo thought.

But it’s something that I sort of sit with. I’m certainly an anti-violence person, etc. But sometimes I sort of get stuck on this sort of emotional logic of like, why violence? And the answer why violence is that people, all else being equal, they like it. They choose it.  And I’m not saying they love it. I’m not saying it’s like a goal. But it’s chosen amongst other alternatives.

And so that’s one of the psychologies of “American Canyon” the song, and then it runs into the record. So yeah, when I think about it, like getting the band back to your image of you know, getting the band back together. It’s crossed our minds, and we’ve very quickly not jumped on that train of just like, let’s haul the drum kit down to the pub.

I mean, I know exactly the place I would play that you’re describing, right. It’s your turn here, you go down there in about that about three quarters a mile, you get this little circle, and there’s this pub there, and I’m pretty sure I could get an hour on a Thursday night there and we’d load in and we’d play some tasteful albeit rusty versions of our old songs. And we know we’d have a couple of beers you’d feel good. And his thing’s just much more from almost like an author’s perspective or something.

UCR: Have you had fans reaching out over the years asking for more music? Or wondering when you were getting back together?  Did that spark all this? Or was simply based on you living around each other again?  

Matt Easton: It definitely helps. I mean, we have our, remaining handful of faithful people. We actually did this online performance yesterday. It was hosted out of Brooklyn for this film competition. They had us on as the musical guests. We played a couple songs. Live stream from my living room here. And what was really funny is that, that we put it out on our page, and we had a person come on and say “I’ve been waiting for this for 20 years”. And you go, Oh that’s amazing. That’s so sweet. 

UCR: Yeah, it has to feel incredible!

Matt Easton: Yeah, I mean, it sort of feels hilarious too. And if you’d asked me 10 years ago, I’d say you’d be waiting a 100 years. 

We don’t have you know, hundreds and hundreds. But there’s enough of that loyal support of like, “We want to hear you again someday.” Some people were shocked that we have a fourth album coming out. Some people when we announced the fourth album, we’re calling it our third album. We realized they didn’t even know we had a third album. But it is really nice. There are people out there in the woodwork who remember us at least somewhat fondly and yeah, that’s cool. 

The Jenny Thing
The Jenny Thing Photo Credit: Olivier Riquelme

UCR: That’s great. They’re gonna love this.   What do your kids think of all this? I’m sure they knew you did music, and that’s part of your family’s life, as you mentioned. But seeing you in a band and doing press, what do they think?

Matt Easton: I think I could maybe yell at the other room and get one of them in here. I think they think it’s relatively cool. This is like faint praise, right? They don’t look down at the music or the creation of it, or the process of it or the genre or whatever it is. They think it’s pretty cool. My son’s really into, Hip Hop and Trap. and he produces. Age almost 16 now, and so he does think that the way we work is a little bit you know, antique. He does a lot of stuff with keyboards and literally draws his parts in with a mouse, like clicks them in with a mouse. He knows how to play the piano, but he still clicks in his parts of the mouse. And then my daughter is actually has a traditional streak. She’s a jazz vocalist and pianist. 

UCR: Wow.

Matt Easton: She’s a little more traditional. They’re very supportive.

UCR: That’s about as high a compliment as you can get because there are some humongous musicians whose kids think their dad is still lame. So if they think it’s cool,  then that’s high praise I’d say.

Matt Easton: I think they do think I’m pretty lame. But the music is actually a bright spot. 

(Laughing)

UCR: Do you remember the first concert you ever went to?

Matt Easton: Oh yeah. Yeah, it was A-ha, Shoreline Amphitheatre. 

UCR: Oh wow.

Matt Easton: Yeah, it was in probably 1986. Got the T-shirt. Mags the keyboard player jumped up on top of this keyboard and stomped on it, sort of like you know, Jimi Hendrix type move from these like Norwegian synth poppers?. Yeah, that made a big impression on me. It was awesome.

UCR: That’s cool. Yeah, and they’re one of those bands as you know in America, they’re kind of known as a one-hit-wonder. But they’re huge everywhere else. They have a huge catalog of greatest hits. I’m sure that concert was great.

Matt Easton: They were the real deal. I mean, and I think you’re right, that they were already big enough elsewhere that even with that one hit, they had some amount of depth to what they were doing and the guy’s a fantastic singer I mean, to this day. 

UCR: Yeah he still sounds great. Do you remember your first time performing live in a band? 

Matt Easton: Man, you know, probably not. 

UCR: But maybe that’s a good thing who knows? 

Matt Easton: I do remember when we sort of got our first club gig. It was like a Wednesday with like, five bands or whatever. 

Matt Easton: I do remember it was very, very exciting. I also remember that about two weeks before that show happened, it was a local club, now defunct in Berkeley here, but a security guard. Now nobody died. So I don’t want to I don’t want to hide that part. Nobody died, but somebody did fire off a weird small handgun in the bathroom during the soundcheck of the biggest band that’s going on.

So this is me in the audience at the club that I’m about to play two weeks later, but I’m in the audience, and the headliner doesn’t go on, because someone got shot and they cleared it out. No one died. But my mom isn’t crazy about me hanging around in such a place in the first place, let alone playing there, let alone with the news that somebody was shot there.  It wasn’t our show but it did kind of make you go “Oh wow, Nightlife.  It’s Exciting.”

UCR: There are so many weird things that happen in clubs. And sometimes you don’t even realize it’s happening because you’re listening to the music and then a friend comes back and is like “Did you see that big fight back there?” And you look back totally unaware and everyone behind you is all bloody.  

Matt Easton: That’s completely the phenomenon about clubs. Somebody you knew just got kicked out or someone got in a fight or someone’s coming. Yeah, yeah, it’s bizarre.

UCR: Is there a show that you would say has been the best concert you’ve ever been to?

Matt Easton: Okay, that’s a great question. I bet I’m gonna give you more than one answer. 

I’ll just do some memorable ones. Two come to mind, I think in 2016 ish. I saw Paul McCartney at what was called the “Last Show at the Stick”. So Candlestick Park, where the Niners played out in the cool, the frozen edge of San Francisco. So you probably know this, but the Beatles last, I think last paid concert or last public appearance.

UCR: I think other than that rooftop concert, you’re right that was it.

Matt Easton: Right, the rooftop is the exception. But yeah, the last sort of like announced promoted ticketed show was at Candlestick Park. So somebody had the brilliant idea, and it was brilliant, to get Paul McCartney out to close the stick down before they tore it down. So we went to that show.

McCartney was so brilliant. I mean, it was amazing, It was one of the few times where I was like, this giant show is awesome because it’s a giant show. Usually, you’re like, I saw these guys back when they were playing 5000 theaters, and they were better. He was just so good at sort of casting his presence.  I know, it’s a lot of showbiz shtick, but it’s also like, he worked so hard to make it happen, that you just have to like, get on board with what he’s trying to do. Even if there’s a cheese factor. I think the intention is authentic, even if the shtick is not always authentic. 

It was brilliant for a few reasons. One was the community of the crowd. That that many people singing those songs that go super deep, for just you know, probably billions of people at this point. I mean, to have people singing, “Let it Be” or “Hey Jude” together you know, 50,000 strong is like an amazing experience.

And the other thing was that he just ran around the stage and he’s got this band where he can sort of have anybody cover what he doesn’t happen to want to do on that song. So he’s got a keyboard player who will play acoustic guitar and a bass player who will play lead guitar. So he’s just flipping between instruments, and he literally runs around six or seven little stations and you feel like, that to me doesn’t feel artificial at all. I think that’s what he’s like at home.

I get the impression that he’s like, he picks up the ukulele. He bangs on the piano. He has you being on the piano and he sings three bars of that three bars of the neck that is really it’s just he’s just such a generous and authentic musician. I that really, that really knocked me out. Yeah, so that those would be a couple in. Did I give you a couple of that because I was just one? That one really, really struck me.

UCR: Well, the thing I think about him is that he gets it.  As weird as it sounds, in a humble way, he gets that it’s a big deal for you to see him. It’s like, I’m gonna make this awesome for you because I know what a big deal it is, without being like, isn’t this a big deal for you? He gives you the experience that you were hoping for.  

Matt Easton: Yeah, it’s pretty damn good.  

UCR: Do you have a show where you walked off stage and thought, “That was our best performance.” Or maybe your favorite performance as a band?

Matt Easton: The clear one for me and it happens to be one of the bigger crowds we played for, but it was an amazing event as will become clear why? But we actually were on the main stage. For some reason I mean, I know how we got there, but it also it was like, Oh, yeah, this person said yes. And this person you know wanted us this person thought about it. And then they said Oh yeah, that’d be great but yeah, we were on the main stage of the 25th anniversary pride concert in San Francisco. 

UCR: Awesome.

Matt Easton: Which is now probably 27 years ago, something like that. I think they had their 50th pride anniversary maybe two years ago. So yeah, so we were on that stage and the crowd was awesome. I mean, the vibes are super up, super you high energy high community in San Francisco. I mean, this is like the heart and soul of San Francisco. To be in the middle of that to be welcomed into that was a huge honor. There were people out on the Embarcadero in San Francisco as far as the eye could see. So that comes to mind for sure. 

UCR: What an awesome experience. On the main stage in front of all those people having a good time in a festival that is so identifiable with that city.  What a memory. 

Matt Easton: Yeah,  both in real-time knowing it’s an honor to be here doing this. This belongs to these people and it’s amazing to get to be here. And then also in retrospect, over the next 25- 27 years since, I don’t know what it would have been like to be there for the first one but to be there and frankly to be there in what was the post-AIDS crisis kind of dawn. I think that was part which I don’t know that I completely got. I was young and perhaps somewhat clueless, but I knew it was an honor. But also looking back now, it’s like, oh it was also a turning point, and looking back, it feels important.

UCR: Yeah, when you did that, it was probably right when the AIDS was turning a corner from how scary uncertain, and just deadly to finally there being hope. 

Matt Easton: And this would have been 95. I wouldn’t say that it was as well addressed as it is now, but there was a period as you well know, you’ve lived here, but I mean probably 83, 85 ish to 89. I mean, they’re just decimated communities, decimated blocks in San Francisco, and really horrific. So yeah, I think that was just an amazing moment to be a part of. I do remember walking out on that stage and just being like, “This isn’t about us and how did we get here?”  These people aren’t here for us? It was just an amazing day. 

UCR: That’s so cool. What a great memory to have. And what a great part of history to be a part of.  

Matt Easton: Yeah, for sure. 

UCR: Well, hey man, again thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed talking to you.  

Matt Easton: That’s been one of the really nice byproducts of getting to do the pressers is some people are just doing the job, but there’s a handful of people and I count you among them where it’s like, oh yeah, there’s definitely shared ground here. 

You can hear American Canyon wherever you purchase or stream your music.

Go to thejennything.com for more information on The Jenny Thing or to follow them on social media.