THE RED JUMPSUIT APPARATUS
NOT FAKING IT
by Jay S. Jacobs
You may have thought that you were catching something brand new when the passionate anti-domestic violence song “Face Down” started taking the music world by storm this summer. With its disgusted and angry lyrics (“Do you feel like a man when you push her around? Do you feel better as she falls to the ground?”) the song struck a huge chord. Red Jumpsuit Apparatus became that most rare of animals in today’s music world – a true grass-roots phenomenon.
However, just because they just have popped onto the big-time music radar doesn’t mean that RJA are an overnight success. The band – featuring lead singer Ronnie Winter, guitarists Duke Kitchens and Elias Reedy, bassist Joey Westwood and drummer Jon Wilkes – has been working the Florida bar scene for years. Much of the music on their hit debut album Don’t You Fake It dates back to their original 2004 demos.
Now that the world has caught up with Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, the band is ready for a long ride. They are releasing a new single – the lovely ballad “Your Guardian Angel” – and plan to start recording the follow-up album after they get off of the road.
On the opening night of the band’s first national headlining tour, lead singer Ronnie Winter sat down with us in the group’s tour bus to discuss the long, strange road that had led himhere.
How did you originally get into music?
For me it’s just something I’ve always done. Most of the guys in the band are the same way. I started playing tuba in junior high orchestra. I played various instruments until I graduated. I went to college at UNF – University of Northern Florida – and basically ran out of money, so at that point I started working fulltime at construction and doing the rock and roll thing – to pay the bills, and also still be doing music. I had my musical side fed as well.
I was reading that early on when the band got together, you really weren’t looking to do it as a living. It was just for fun. When did you realize that this was something you could really do? career?
It’s weird. The way it was – like I said, at that point we were all working fulltime. I had another band – two other bands – one before this one. So did Duke. We actually kind of started the whole thing together. It was just a scenario where this band just – for some reason, people responded to it. When we played live, they came to the shows. They bought CDs. They bought T-shirts. They liked the music. It was just that obvious to us. We were like; this is easy. We just sold out our third show ever. It was like, how is it possible from word of mouth? The kids were just going around everywhere saying, ‘Man, you’ve got to check out this new band, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. They’re local, but they sound awesome. Listen to the demo.’ That was the thing. We had a demo good enough that competed with national products, basically – that we recorded for dirt-cheap. Next to nothing. If you can pull that off… if you can make a really good demo and you can back it up live, honestly, I feel that any band has a shot. That’s how we did it. The real way. But, yeah, in the beginning it was basically… this was just another band – between me and Duke’s bands. This was our band together, but I had my thing and he had his thing.
I’m sure you’re tired of this question, but what exactly is a Red Jumpsuit Apparatus? Or is it just something you made up?
It’s definitely not anything solid. I guess we were just tired of making up new band names at that point and we just picked a really stupid, silly one that didn’t mean anything. That was completely arbitrary. That basically stood for the absence of a name. And we were like, well, that’s cool. I can see the coolness in that. Let’s roll with it.
Well like you said, you were a local band. “Face Down” has been all over radio and TV for the last few months nationally. How crazy was it like to break so big with your first single?
Well, the great thing about our hometown is – we actually released and have been playing “Face Down” since 2004. So this song has been going strong for three and a half years now. So, as opposed to some people who just didn’t really know about the band, who just thought it was an overnight success – they’re just wrong. The people in our hometown were actually happy for us. We’re getting phone calls from our friends, our family members: ‘Holy crap, dude, you’re getting played on the pop and rock station and your video is on MTV. I can’t believe it.’ [They were] so happy for us. It was basically done from support. Why? Because all of our friends and family who knew how long we worked at this… not just in the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, just years of trying to make it as a musician. That’s really what it was. It was the culmination of everything that we’ve done thus far in our lives. I’m 24. A lot of people think I’m seventeen. I’m not. Never claimed to be. Believe it or not, we’ve been doing this for a while. So, for us, honestly it was just nothing but awesomeness. And when it did happen, when it did explode, I will say that when the explosion happens, that does happen relatively quick. Even for bands to kind of understand. We knew we were getting big, because everybody was just like, ‘Dude, you’re getting huge.’ Our friends. ‘You understand that, you guys are getting huge.’ And we’re like, all right…. Cool. That’s cool to hear. When your friends still think your band is cool, first of all, and second of all they’re telling you you’re huge – that’s when you know, I think. Your real friends.
How does the band handle writing the songs – is it all a big collaborative thing or do certain people do certain things?
Writing is… it’s funny, because there’s a lot of different ways to do it. And there’s a lot of different ways it’s been done in this band. But, essentially, the way it works is very simple. I’m the singer, so I write the lyrics and the melodies. So I claim the song, per se. The band writes the music. Anything from me and Elias working on guitar riff and the drum part together and then showing it to the band and everybody working it, or John and Elias doing it on their own without me in the room. Or maybe Joey and John are together working on the bass drum groove. They show it to us later, like, ‘what do you guys think about this?’ Basically, we all just listen to everything, so everyone feels like they have a say. Because they do and that’s important. It’s really important in a band. Everybody has to have a say, regardless. Technically, even over everybody else’s instrument. And that’s when it gets funny, and that’s when feelings get hurt, but if you’re friends, you get over that crap. You also get over the fact that you don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings, because you get to the point where you want what is good for the song. Just from playing together for years, we’ve developed to write together. That’s how we do it. Everybody respectively does their own job, but we all have opinions on each other’s instruments. But it wasn’t always like that.
“Face Down” obviously tells a very personal story of abuse. Was it based on something in real life?
‘Face Down’ is exactly the same as every other song I’ve ever written. All written in the same vein. The album is entitled Don’t You Fake It. All of the lyrics were taken from life experiences for me. Specifically me or anybody in the band. It’s basically me talking about my life, or somebody in the band’s life, or somebody that we know. Basically, a situation that we experienced together. For instance, ‘Face Down’ is a little bit more geared towards me. I grew up in a pretty bad home. My parents got divorced when I was really young. There was a lot of drugs and alcohol and domestic violence. A lot of things happened. Not just one. It kind of all goes together. It’s rare that you just experience one of those things. It’s really, usually, that classic story. One day, sitting there, the song came out. Complete thought – from start to finish. It was definitely not anything we tried to do. You can’t try to make a song like that. You can’t try to make a song ever, or you’re going to drive yourself crazy. When you’re inspired, you’re inspired. That is probably the most hard thing to explain to anybody unless you’ve felt it before. Basically it just came out and the band understood it. That’s kind of what we do, it was just always – we always want to keep a very honest lyrical content, because we all agree that the music that meant the most to us was when you really believed what the singer was saying. What better to do to make you believe than to tell the truth? Which was what we came up with. So that’s what I do.
It seems like on the new CD, when the songs turn to relationships – and not necessarily love relationships, though of course those are there, but also friendships, etc. – like “Misery Loves Company,” “Cat & Mouse” and “False Pretense” the relationships seem to be in trouble or dying. As a songwriter, do you find troubled relationships more interesting than happy ones?
I think that we live in a real world and nobody’s perfect. Even people with great relationships have ups and downs. You know, I’m married. I’ve been married a year now. Basically, I’ve learned more in one year than I ever thought I knew when I was even recording these songs. But it’s proven me even more right in my own mind. It’s a team. You’ve got to work. So there is good and there is bad. As far as the negative connotation being more popular – I think it just strikes a chord with people a little more. It makes them feel like they felt when that happened. It’s more of a sense that I’m relating to them. They’re like, ‘oh, wow, that’s exactly how I felt. The way he said that is exactly the way I felt with this person.’ So it’s just me basically, in yet another way, saying I’ve been through this, too. I’m all right. I figured it out. If I figured it out, you can figure it out. So don’t worry about it. Nothing is really a big deal.
One thing I like about the band is that you are hard, but you aren’t afraid to have a tune. A few years ago it was something of a sell-out for a rock band to have a melody. Why do you think the world is so ready for more melodic rock?
I honestly think it’s because people want… I don’t know. That’s a debatable question for a long time. I know exactly what you’re talking about. When Green Day first started getting big, a lot of punks were talking trash about them. I was twelve years old, a skater punk with a blue Mohawk. Believe it or not, I was pretty rock and roll. I was definitely one of the kids who was in the conflict of ‘Is Green Day punk rock or not?’ Because you can sing their songs. I was always basically blown away by the fact that people were even arguing about it. There was a cool band that supported basically all the ideals – everything I believed in – but they were just catchy enough to get on the radio. So at least they were representing our genre. At least there’s somebody there in the classroom putting their hand up, saying ‘present.’ If not, you’re not even being discovered. You’re not being talked about. If you really care about a style of music as much as some people say, then they shouldn’t hate on it. They should embrace everything about it. If you think it’s too poppy, then don’t listen to it. Find something that’s more your taste.
That’s what great about now. Everybody in this society has grown up knowing that they are individuals. I remember when I was a kid in school, that’s all they ever used to say: “Be yourself. Be yourself.” So all of these people of my generation and younger are – they’re being themselves. They’re going to shop wherever they want. They don’t care what people think anymore. There’s not as many… I mean, there are cliques and stuff like that. It’s never going to go away. But there’s not nearly as many as when I was going to high school. And [the time] my parents [were young] was even worse. It was basically Side A/Side B. With me there was five or six cliques. Now it’s just – there’s like twelve. There’s still twelve cliques, but there’s a lot more options. Everybody’s being themselves and digging into their own little categories. I think the reason that songwriting is coming back… long-winded answer… is because people aren’t afraid to express their opinions. They don’t care what everybody else thinks. They care what they think. Which is good, because like they say, two heads is better than one. And I expect 5,000 heads are better than one. Or five million….
Like you said, it’s been a while since you wrote a lot of these songs. I know you guys have been touring a lot, but any plans for a follow-up album yet? How do you think that one will be different?
Yeah. It’s a constant process. We’ve never really stopped writing. But, we actually for the first time in our career since we’ve been signed, got a break. This is our first show in a long time. So it’s nice, we’re kind of rejuvenated. Just ready to go out there and have a good time. Basically, we did a lot of writing [during the time off]. We all sat around and whether it was recording guitar onto your cell phone and sending that via voicemail to the other guy across the country or I use my MacBook a lot. Digital recording or whether it’s just jamming in the back [of the tour bus]. They’re not there now, but before you walked in there was two little baby Taylor acoustic guitars, which we always keep around, because everyone in my band can play guitar – all five of us. Jon, me, Joey, Elias, Duke – everyone plays guitar. So if you just leave two around [someone will pick it up]. So, yeah, we’ve been working on it. We have quite a few new songs. We are slated to go into the studio next year. I think it’s going to be full guns ahead, so it’s possible that we might have the record out by the end of next year. We’ll see. A lot of that depends on the label. How fast they can get their stuff together.
“False Pretense” was the second single, but it kind of got overshadowed by the long life “Face Down” has had. It seems like they just kept playing the older song. “Your Guardian Angel” is the third. Do you have an input on what is going to be the singles, or does the label decide that?
It’s funny. It’s so funny. It’s so weird the way it really actually works. When “Face Down” came out, nobody wanted to play it. It’s that simple. We did insist on that being the first single before we signed. We said, “We want ‘Face Down’ to be our first single. If not, we’re not signing.” Luckily, there was no argument. The label was like, “Great, we love ‘Face Down.’ Let’s make that happen and we’ll talk about the second single when it’s time.” So we really didn’t push the issue. When “Face Down”… before it broke on pop the label made the decision to move on, because radio had responded, but not ridiculously. So, basically, people started calling in. Once people started calling in and asking for the song more – because radio stations weren’t playing it enough – that happened all over the country simultaneously. That then equaled simultaneous adds all over the country, which equaled blowing up overnight. So really the only people you can thank are real human beings who picked up a phone – which they say doesn’t count, but they’re wrong. It does. I’m living proof of it. They just tell you that because they don’t want everyone calling every day. It does matter. People do listen. Even executives, heads of companies for Clear Channel and everybody else, all those radio stations – they listen. When that many people call in, they listen. Then it came to the fact where, all right, the song’s on the radio, now they don’t want to let it go. They feel like they’ve found something, but they didn’t find anything. The people gave it to them – as usual.
So if you’ve been into the band and following, that’s how it worked. “False Pretense” came out. Everybody on the band’s side loved it. Everybody on the fan’s side… we got a huge response. Anytime we play it overseas everyone knows the video. They come dressed up in video outfits, with the logos on their hands. The video was great, it went over great, it wasn’t pushed to radio. Honestly, there were still quite a few awesome rock stations that picked it up anyway – just because they loved the band. And I pretty much know all of them. And that was it. It was that simple. That was the second single. Then we came out with “Guardian Angel.” Literally, the video came out yesterday, so this is brand new, still fresh. We’ll see what happens. Honestly, it’s not something you need to over-think. If your song breaks on the radio, it’s cool, but it’s not necessarily… you don’t need it. We never needed it before. We were selling out venues before “Face Down” broke on the radio. We’ve been playing the song for two and a half years. So, you don’t need it, but it does help. It’s one heck of a boost. You’re like, oh wow; we didn’t have to work so hard on that song. So if it doesn’t work, we work hard and we work the single ourselves. I’m already confident everybody likes “Guardian Angel” anyway. Why? Because we asked our fans: what do you want our third single to be? You decide. That simple. We made a MySpace post about it. Our fans voted – there was literally a click vote. All the votes were tallied up, without cheating or anything like that. And they got what they wanted. They got a video for “Guardian Angel.”
Well, speaking of MySpace, now musicians have so many different options to get their music out – not just traditional radio. Things like MySpace, the Internet, your website. I believe you guys were just on The Hills…
Yes, we were. That was interesting.
How much do you think all the options can help a band to break?
Some of that is actually pretty dangerous, because people are just opinionated. But other than that, I’m just a firm believer that the bands that broke… It’s funny; there are so many bands that get signed with labels every year. Hundreds – if not thousands. Less than ten usually break a year. That’s it. That’s a staggering number when you think about it. I’ve seen a lot of these bands come and go – just since I’ve been here. It’s interesting, the ones who make it are the ones who bust their ass. They’re the ones who go on MySpace and make posts, talk to people. They’re the ones who call fans back on phones through their companies, like we do – brand new cutting edge technology. You stay on top of what’s modern. Why? Because the kids are what’s modern. They’re always going to be on top of it. You’re keeping up with them. That does keep you modern.
On top of that, work hard. Work as hard as you want them to work for you. Every band that I’ve seen do that has become successful. So if they use – well we were talking about MySpace, or Pure Volume or just a handful of crazy websites that are out there now. I can’t even keep up with all of them out there to get their music out. And they are consistent. You know, if you just throw up a MySpace page with a couple of cool looking pictures and a crappy demo, you’re not going to make it, dude. Sorry. There are thousands of other bands that did the same thing that day; who are going to have another band next week… and probably another one three weeks after that. All being treated the same way by the average listener because of bands like that. They are setting up their own failure when they are doing that. There are so many of these bands looking for the instant glory, which doesn’t happen. They’re like, “Oh, this worked for this band or that band….” Honestly, I don’t know one band that threw a MySpace page up and got signed off of it. I don’t. Supposedly they are out there. I have never met this band. I think that everyone I ever met has been doing it for years, got a deal, toured in a band like we did. Did a whole bunch of crazy stuff that took forever – and then finally got their break. But when they got their break is when everybody else heard about them. So to them it’s blowing up.
You ended up recording “Face Down” in an acoustic version as well as the full-on band version. How do you think the two versions bring different things out in the song for different people?
I’m glad you asked about that. No one has actually asked me about that before. It was really just something we decided to do on the fly. “Face Down” was out on radio. We didn’t record [the acoustic version] until quite a bit later. It came out on our bonus re-release. Basically, we just did a lot of in-stores, where you show up at a CD store in a town. All the sudden everybody hears – on MySpace or whatever – Red Jumpsuit Apparatus is playing at Blah-Blah-Blah CD store down the street. Be there at three o’clock. Four or five hundred kids show up. It’s awesome. We play a little acoustic set. We started doing that. We did three or four of those a week while we were also doing our show that night. People were just mailing us and going, “Man, I really like ‘Face Down’ acoustic. Where can I get a recording of that?” The best way to figure out anything is to listen to your fans. We called our manager – hey, everyone’s really digging this “Face Down” acoustic jam thing that we’re doing. The other songs, too, but specifically “Face Down” was definitely the one we noticed the most response to. Moms were coming up to me, “Wow, I’d really like it when you play it this way. I wish I could get a copy of that.” So talked to our manager, said we want to do it. Hooked back up with [producer] Dave [Bendeth]. Went back in the studio when we had a day off in our tour. Banged it out in one night. Took eight hours, start to finish. Had him mix it. Send it to us. And there you go.
You recently did the Warped Tour. What was that like? Pretty crazy?
It was rough, man. Well, it’s just – it was 104 in Phoenix. There you go. Enough said. It’s just a hot, long tour. We were on nineteen shows in eighteen days. We were the only band that was on every single show, from start to finish. There was probably about twenty of us out of the fifty bands that are advertised. So, it’s just – if you’re one of the bands that does the whole thing, it’s rough. But, it’s also one of the most gratifying experiences, because – number one, there’s just so many amazing bands playing. For us, we don’t take that for granted. Every day we were out watching Underoath. We were out watching Bad Religion. We were out watching Pennywise. We were out watching Coheed and Cambria. We were out watching Circa Survive. Every day. Why? Because they are playing and I’m here and I don’t have to pay to see it. And they’re awesome. Why not watch them? That was probably the best part for us, because we did grow up going to Warped Tour. Waking up every day at a carnival is pretty cool. But, then again, it’s just so much easier to really talk to people when there’s not so much noise and just random craziness.
So you ruin a little bit of the intimacy… a lot of it, actually… as opposed to tonight, where we’ve basically been walking around town all day, just running into random people. Talking to them as they come and go. If they notice you, cool, if they don’t, whatever. That to me is really awesome. I remember the first time I ever ran into somebody in our hometown in a show was a singer from a band called Spineshank. They’re a little older and kind of heavy, but they were awesome. I just remembered him standing there, talking on his cell phone, and I couldn’t believe the fact that it was really him. But it was him. It looked like he was out in a movie or something. I just remember him being really cool to me. He was on the phone, but he could see me freaking out. Like, oh, is that him? I was talking to my friend. We weren’t really sure if it was him. Afterwards, he talked to me, shook my hand, took a picture – and I don’t know, ever since then, if anyone ever said anything bad about that band I am like, no, they’re cool. For me, it worked on me, so we just try to reciprocate that to other people. We like to be involved. And on Warped Tour you can’t really do that, because there’s thousands of people. If you talk to one person then fifteen see you and they come up – which isn’t a big deal, until that turns into 500. Then people just start pushing. And then they start getting crazy. There’s actually been people who’ve fought over getting to us. That just makes you feel bad and weird. Dude, I don’t want to see that. Like a twelve-year-old girl with our band shirt on just got trampled by sixteen other twelve-year-old girls who didn’t see her. There are just things that happen that aren’t cool. It becomes a different situation. That’s why it’s not good to do [one of those] tours. You lose intimacy, but you gain mass crowds. It’s a give and take.
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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 28, 2007.