When The Jenny Thing finished recording 1999’s Nowhere Near You, its members also knew they were finished as a band.
So when Jenny Thing guitarists Matt Easton and Shyam Rao played a record release show for that album at Larry Blake’s on Telegraph Avenue in the synth-rock band’s hometown of Berkeley, California, it also served as a farewell concert (albeit one that only their friends knew about).
“Our thought at the time was, ‘We’ve done this thing,’ ” Easton says today about the collective decision to disband after three albums. (In 1994, the year its second album, Closer and Closer to Less, was released, The Jenny Thing had a nice run on TV’s Star Search). “We had flirtations with these people in Los Angeles, labels and things, [but breaking up was about] getting on with our lives.”
More than two decades later, the lives of Easton, Rao, bassist Ehren Becker and drummer Mike Phillips are intertwined again, and The Jenny Thing is back with American Canyon, due June 18.
Families and nonmusic jobs still occupy most of their time. But in the period between forming at UC Berkeley in 1991 to the Easton-and-Rao-only record release/farewell show at the end of that decade, Easton says The Jenny Thing grinded it out to make it as a band.
“We were hitting it hard,” Easton recalls. “Camper Van Beethoven would be a perfect point of reference for what we thought was possible. Not necessarily a major label thing; it would be a blue-collar, self-release, 200-gigs-a-year sort of thing. We were up and down California enough for a time. We played a lot of college radio stations in the mornings, a lot of college campuses at lunchtime, then we’d play clubs at night — the Troubadour, the Roxy [and similar-size venues].”
In the wake of the musicians getting on with our lives, they stayed “very significantly in touch,” says Easton.
“Our friendships kicked in as much or more without music at the center,” he explains. “In particular, Ehren and I have daughters who are the same age. Mike and I have known each other since we were zero; our parents are friends to this day. We don’t really exist without each other.”
As for Rao, he lived in New York for a while, and Easton would visit him there while on vacation. And whenever Rao was back in California, he’d stop by and see Easton.
Their interactions became much more regular after Rao moved back to the Golden State around five years ago.
“All of a sudden he lived about an hour away from me, and of course a little bit of a social thing kicked in,” Easton says.
That led to them “just doing the normal songwriting stuff,” says Easton, and by that he means sharing what they had started on their own and seeing what material had potential. Eventually, Easton and Rao started getting together on Saturday mornings, during which they would react to each other and take turns playing different instruments.
They reached a point where Easton says he and Rao felt as though the quality of the music was coming back, and that was coupled with their compatibility and a level of comfort in what Easton describes as “a nonlinear way of working.”
“There is a lot of form to what we did in the end, but it was a very circuitous route,” Easton says.
The main work on American Canyon was done over the course of 2018 and 2020, with Becker and Phillips coming in when available and as needed, Easton says. Working in pairs at Easton’s home studio in Berkeley was the norm; the quartet did play live together on a handful of songs.
A thread runs throughout the new eight-song album. According to Easton, “Each track describes the characters’ emotional reactions at pivotal points in a story where they struggle with faith and doubt, urgency and resignation, love, hate and mortality.”
Easton does see The Jenny Thing continuing beyond American Canyon: “We want to keep making urgent and emotional stuff and riding the creative wave.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Photo by Olivier Riquelme