Photo by Alec Castillo, courtesy of Force Field PR.
With the world in lockdown and still negotiating the treacherous waters of the pandemic and its equally dangerous deniers, the current timeline doesn’t seem like a particularly great time to drop an album. Unless it’s an album that seems engineered to help us absorb hope and rise above what appears to be an endless episode of the old Fear Factor series.
You swing from the branches
Run through your house
I can barely keep up
As the darkness surrounds you
Friend of mine, where do you run to now?
Can I try to bring you back somehow?
It’s been five years since Brooklyn-based producer/musician John Jagos, better known as Brothertiger, released an album of original material. It’s not like he hasn’t been busy during that time, though. He toured, released an EP, and even recorded an extremely well-received LP reinterpreting Tears for Fears’ classic Songs from the Big Chair album. Finally, on Friday, September 11th, his long-awaited new album Paradise Lost (Satanic Panic Recordings) arrived, and I spoke to him from his studio where he was busy rehearsing for a livestreamed Bandcamp concert to be performed the next day. Of course, my first question was…what took so long?
“Well, the Tears for Fears project took up a lot of time,” he says, “and I thought it was going to be an easy thing. But it ended up being very difficult, because it was hard for me to make it my own and be as original as possible. That was the biggest challenge. I realized over time, though, that I’m a really slow songwriter. I kind of stew on things for a really long time before I can convert them and make them reach the point where I can say, ‘Okay, this is going to be a song on my next album.’ It takes me a good amount of listening and critical thinking to formulate a list of songs for a record. So, you know, that took a few years. And with this one, it was just such a long haul in terms of getting the material to the point where I felt really good about making a record again. Writer’s block could be a part of it in that I was trying to figure out my evolution, I guess?” He pauses for a moment, laughs, and says, “And also me being a real slow poke with coming up with material.”
It was more than worth the wait. Paradise Lost is a soothing balm for the soul at a time where we’re dealing with upended social norms and a lack of interpersonal interaction. When I share that listening to the album was like a much-needed serotonin rush, he agrees. “You’re not the first to say something exactly like that. It’s a very calming record, especially with these times, which obviously wasn’t my original intention, because I didn’t know there was going to be a pandemic when I started writing this! But for me, it’s very soothing to make this kind of music, something that’s not so aggressive and in your face. It’s more laid back and self-reflective. If it helps calm you and reset your brain, that’s what I want.”
Follow down to the riverbend
I know the way
Gun it now through the wilderness
Open out, Pacific bay
As a kid growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Jagos initially didn’t see himself as the solo performer he ultimately evolved into. “When I was first starting to make electronic music, I wasn’t really into a lot of guys like me. I was more into indie music, ghost rock, Mogwai, Sigur Rós, Portishead, stuff like that. I was into the mix of guitar and synthesizer.” Even though the influence of ‘80s music helped shape his music, it wasn’t always that way. “Obviously when I was in high school I wasn’t listening to ‘80s stuff that much, but when I got to college I started discovering Talk Talk and the more obscure ‘80s bands. I was like, ‘I’d like to bring this back in some way.’” While preparing to graduate college, he received an offer to work in a recording studio in Brooklyn. “They said, ‘We have a room available if you want to move here.’ It became my golden ticket to New York because otherwise it would have been such a hard thing for me to get here. So I moved to the studio and started working out of there and helped me keep building a career.” It’s a brave move, pulling up your roots in Toledo to forge a career in Brooklyn, and it’s something that still crosses his mind. “I think about it a lot, because I didn’t have an iPhone back then, I was still working with a flip phone or some bullshit, and I don’t know how I even made it here. I moved here on an Amtrak, you know? It was pretty wild! You can take as many bags as you want to on there, so I was like fuck it, you know? It got me in, man.”
Over my head
“Take it one step at a time,” they said
None of this really matters
Even I know that
Even though fans of Brothertiger extol the immersive nature of his music, Jagos appreciates lyrics and their ability to bottleneck the emotions of the music to convey general ideas that become quite specific. “When I’m writing a song, the lyrics usually come last and help tie up the song for me. That’s the part that takes the longest for me.” When I bring up the subject of lyrical influences, his answers are genuinely surprising. “I’m a really big fan of Prefab Sprout,” he reveals, “and I really like their approach to lyrics, and how they’re kind of making fun of pop music lyrics.” He’s also a fan of Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, whose influence can be heard on the pleading “My Canopy” on the new record. “Green Gartside is really amazing, and he plays on pop music and what language means to it. So I’m paying more attention to my personal experiences. For me, it’s more like trying to capture a moment in time and writing a song about that, and I think a lot of the stuff I write about is very relatable. A lot of these songs are about very specific moments in my life that I wanted to say something about. It has to be right, because I’m not just going to throw something together about loving someone or finding someone attractive across the room. I feel like that’s too easy sometimes.”
One of the key identifying factors of a Brothertiger album is Jagos’ voice, which seems to have the same warm tone as an old-school analog synth, cruising just below the surface of all of that atmospheric world-building. “It’s funny, I started singing differently because of Mark Hollis, the singer of Talk Talk. I changed the way I sing because I really dug his approach to singing deep in the throat, and I started doing that with most of the recent stuff I’ve made.” Jagos is also quick to compliment his friend Jon Markson, a fellow Brooklyn local who mixes his albums. “When we approached this album, we really engineered the idea of treating the vocals as an instrument and not putting them too far out above everything else. A lot of songs, the vocals are the centerpoint of the music. For me though, I like that I’m just part of the ensemble. I’m in the spotlight for a few moments. but I want you to be fully immersed in the song, and not focused on one distinct thing. I’d like it to be more vague and more relaxed.” Clearly this benefits the intimate and introspective nature of the music, but I ask if he ever considered trying to have a full live band interpret the songs. “I actually tried it a few years ago at South by Southwest,” he explains. “I got a band together with some friends. I had no idea what I was doing back then, and it turned into more of a rock band.” He wasn’t exactly thrilled with the results. “I was like, well whatever, this is fine, I guess I have a guitar player, a drummer, but it was not what I wanted to do.” He’s not completely done with the idea, though. It just has to fit into an approach that better complements the current aesthetic of his music. “If I do it again, I want the full band thing to be me, and two other utility sort of guys. More like Kraftwerk, people doing multiple things. Eventually I’d like to figure that out.”
The years that I’ve put down
How many more are coming around?
I wanna feel the sunlight now
On the horizon
As we wind up our conversation, I ask him if he has any guilty pleasures. I love asking artists this, because the answers are almost always out of left field, and Jagos thinks for a few seconds before answering. “I would say early Madonna, just for the synth programming. I listened to just the instrumentals of early Madonna, and they’re amazing. The programming alone is so good, it’s so technical and so professional and I love the kind of sound. Madonna herself I don’t really care, I’m more interested in her producers and the guys who did all the keyboard arrangements.”
Finally, I really wanted to know how Tears for Fears’ Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith reacted to his Brothertiger Plays: Tears for Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair album. “You know, officially I don’t know,” Jagos says. “The one connection I had to them was another fan of mine who messaged me on Instagram. He owned a restaurant in Atlanta, and they showed up for brunch in the restaurant. The guy who owned it just happened to be playing my Tears for Fears record over the loudspeaker. Apparently they heard it, and I think Curt Smith looked at the guy and kind of put his head in his hands like ‘Jesus Christ, man. I’ve heard this music enough already, now I have to hear a cover?’” laughs Jagos. “I think it was kind of a joke, and lighthearted, but it’s just kind of funny that’s how they heard the record.” When I offer my unasked-for-opinion that they would probably enjoy it, Jagos says “I would hope so. I tried to give it my own little flair, my own style, but it was so challenging and hard to do, because it’s one of my favorite records. It’s hard to separate my love for it and wanting to do my own thing with it, but I managed to pull it off.” | Jim Ousley