An Opportunity for Something New: Jukebox the Ghost’s Tommy Siegel Discusses Their Self-Produced Album Cheers

Photo of Jukebox the Ghost by Alex Bellink

Four years after the release of Off to the Races, beloved pop-rock band Jukebox the Ghost has returned to the scene with Cheers, an adventurous and experimental album self-produced by the group over the course of the pandemic. By combining brand-new songs with ones that have been in the making for as long as twelve years, Jukebox the Ghost has created a record that will seem both familiar and fresh to longtime fans. While the band’s signature piano-rock style does make its highly anticipated return on upbeat tracks such as “Move Along,” other songs—such as the strikingly unique “Brass Band”—blend that style with bold new instrumentation that demands listeners’ full attention. 

Designed to be listened to in order (and preferably in one sitting), Cheers is interspersed with introductory pieces that range from Queen-esque and cinematic (“Century in the Making [Intro]”) to haunting and thought-provoking (“The Machine [Intro]”). Through the artful combination of these interludes with the album’s full-length songs, the thirteen tracks of Cheers weave an apocalyptic narrative—often embedded in deceptively cheerful-sounding tunes—that hurtles toward a cathartic conclusion. The titular single serves as a triumphant capstone that urges listeners to treasure the little things in a world that too often discounts them.

Two of the UJ’s editors, Arie Likhtman and Taylor McGowan, recently met via Zoom with Tommy Siegel, guitarist and vocalist for Jukebox the Ghost, to discuss what Cheers means to him and the group.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So would you mind talking to us a little bit about the inspiration behind the album?

So, you know, we’re 18 years into making music together at this point. We started recording Cheers right before the pandemic.

We had built this little studio. It’s just a little shithole in Brooklyn. We’re just very lucky that we had happened to build this place, because when everything locked down, it meant that we had a safe place where we could, you know, hole up together and work for months and months whenever we needed to.

We had a lot of songs that we brought into the sessions, but I would say that the arc of the project kept shifting. I had a through line that I was really passionate about making work on the record, which was the “Century in the Making (Intro)” into “Hey Maude,” and then also “Ramona” and “Us Against the World,” which were originally a pairing.

And then there were “The Machine (Intro),” “Everybody Panic,” “Raise a Glass (Interlude),” “How the World Began,” and “Cheers!” I felt like it’s something, you know—maybe not a literal story, but [something that] felt like a story. So that was part of a skeleton that we were working with and then adding to and trying to figure out where other songs would fit in there.

Photo of Jukebox the Ghost by Alex Bellink

Would you say that the pandemic influenced the direction of the album?

Yeah, I mean, it’s weird. Obviously, for the band, the pandemic was rough financially, just because touring is our bread and butter; that’s how we’ve made a living pretty much our entire career. But on the other hand, it meant that we could spend unlimited time on this album. In the past, I think normal life [got] in the way, distractions [got] in the way, [and] deadlines [got] in the way, and [there’s] also just industry pressure where you’ll get convinced that you have to put out a song this fall and it has to be a radio single or whatever.

So this time, there were no deadlines and it felt almost ridiculous to have any career ambitions of any kind. It was just like, there’s just the three of us working on an album again. So I think it meant that we got to get a little more creative and, I don’t know, stretch our legs a little bit more than we normally would on an album.

On some of our albums, we have tracks where we really dug into the production for a really long amount of time. But [for] this record, [it] felt like the entire thing was like a learning process… Spending a week on one song, you know, just chipping away on it for ten hours a day.

The end result is [that] when I hear the record, I don’t hear anything I wish I had done differently, which is really nice. Sometimes you’re working on a budget—when you’re in a recording studio, it’s expensive—but we had all the time in the world, and we had this studio that we had built ourselves, so there was no overhead.

On something like “Everybody Panic” or “Hey Maude”—which [I realize] is really complicated now when I listen to it—I think, “We spent a lot of time on this.” I think everything’s in the right place, you know? So it’s a good feeling.

The whole home studio, self-production [thing] is becoming… not the norm, but it's becoming a really popular [thing] and it's becoming the way that a lot of musicians are producing their music. So, even if it was just a financial and administrative choice because of the pandemic, how did Jukebox the Ghost go about the process of self-producing and using the at-home studio, and how did that affect the creative process? How did the lack of a professional recording studio shape the artistic direction of the album?

I think in previous eras it would have been a problem, because we weren’t good enough and the technology wasn’t good enough. But this record just happened to hit [at] the right time where all three [of us] as individuals—especially Ben—had been really hustling all of our own production skills as individual engineers and producers. It just so happened that this was the first record where we felt confident enough to make it ourselves. In the past we’d recorded some stuff [ourselves]: I remember I was really excited [when] I recorded Jesse playing [drums] on “The Other Side” on the last album. But this time, it was like we were finally ready to take the training wheels off.

So it just so happened to coincide that way. [On some songs] there’s someone that we have co-written the song with, and maybe it has some of their production on it—for example, “Wasted” and “Ramona” are two songs on the record that are kind of half-self-produced, because the people that we had worked with on them initially had so many production elements on there.

For the future, I think that we’ve found a method that really works for us, and we really enjoy being able to get it exactly how we want to get it and take that time. You know, if you’re paying somebody, they might be quicker, but they also might not want to get there with the same level of passion as you do.

The audio nerd in me wants to dive a little deeper into the specifics of your home studio setup. What does Jukebox the Ghost look like in terms of the recording process and then the post-production stuff? Like hardware, software, all that fancy stuff. Could you walk us through a general overview of your production from a technical perspective?

Totally. I think most people would be disturbed that nothing on this record touched a piece of outboard gear at any point to my knowledge, other than maybe mastering.

We just have a bunch of basic mikes. We have them all running through our UAD system. We have come up with two Apollos chained together and we recorded [with that]. It’s a very, very simple setup. We have plug-ins that we like and, you know, compressors and console emulators and stuff through UAD that we really enjoy.

Most of the vocals were recorded through a Manley on this record. That’s the one expensive mic that we have. What I found crazy was that because we were writing at the same time as recording, it didn’t have that formal feeling of “we’re going to record all the drums today and here are all the mikes we’re using,” you know?

So for example, for the verse beats on “Everybody Panic,” we were just tossing around ideas and Jesse was like, “what if the verse was a half-time groove?” And I just threw up one mic and then he played the beat, and then I just, you know, added some compression and delay in Logic and was like, “I think we’re done.”

But it was just one mic. You know what I mean? Whereas I think in a normal studio environment, you’d have sixteen tracks, but I don’t know if it would have been better with sixteen tracks. I think it sounds great. It was one track. So, yeah, it’s a very simple recording setup.

I admire the simplicity of that. I think that shows in the album, definitely. It doesn't feel overproduced. And I think a lot of modern music, especially in the pop sphere, can feel overproduced. But I think the simplicity shines through.

Yeah, it is crazy how good of a recording you can get with very minimal gear these days, especially with the UAD shit and the tape emulators and the Neve console emulators and the Pultecs… everything just sounds fantastic. Ten years ago, I could tell when something was recorded on a computer versus [having been recorded] to tape and then into a computer. Now, I don’t know if I can tell the difference.

Photo of Jukebox the Ghost by Alex Bellink

Is this going to be the way you work going forward? Do you think that even though you could call it sort-of forced due to the pandemic, working in a home studio and taking more time away from professional recording environments is going to be something that we'll see more on your future records? Or do you think that once everything continues to open up, Jukebox the Ghost will go back to more professional studios? Are we going to see a hybrid?

You know, judging by where the music industry is, I don’t foresee us being in a position where labels offer us huge recording advances.

And honestly, we can record a lot more music ourselves than we can if we’re paying for studio time. I think the new record sounds great. When I listened to it, I just thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t we do this every time?” And from a creative perspective, too, I think one of our biggest enemies as a band has been a lack of budget to record all the songs that we want to, and now we don’t have that problem.

So we actually recorded a lot more songs than what ended up on Cheers, and we’re still figuring out what to do with them, but it just gives us the freedom to be able to actually get out the things that are in our brains. In the past, we’d have three years’ worth of material, probably fifty songs, and then we had to figure out an eleven-track album because we only had the budget to record eleven tracks.

So that’s always a really, really tricky process that we got to completely avoid this time. And I think that’s for the better. Some of the songs that were the last to be recorded in this batch are my favorites. I think this is really funny and weird in hindsight, but on our previous record, some of the best tracks that are also fan favorites were ones that we recorded last and weren’t sure if we had the budget for, like “Hollywood,”  “Colorful,” and “Everybody Knows.” There’s just a lot of tracks that we were almost going to not record, you know? So this solves that problem completely.

One thing that was mentioned in one of the Instagram posts by Jukebox the Ghost about Cheers is that one of the challenges with a band that has been together for so long is making sure that everyone is represented on the record. So, I was wondering, do you think there's a specific way that each member of Jukebox the Ghost stands out on the record?

On this record, we each sort of musical-directed the things that we had written. And I think that just worked really well, ‘cause it meant every part of it was a passion project rather than some weird—I don’t know, some weird compromise with some other person in the room who’s not in the band, you know?

I feel like for me, Ben is shining really bright on “Brass Band.” I think it’s a great hybridization of his piano thing. He also did all that production, and I think it sounds as good as anything on the radio, personally. I think that even as bandmates, Jesse and I were just really impressed with what he was doing production-wise. 

I think the guys were really kind to me. Sometimes my sci-fi song suites get a little bit of an eye roll, but on this record, we really dove into them. And I was really proud particularly of “The Machine (Intro)” and “Everybody Panic,” because that’s the type of thing that we wouldn’t ordinarily do. I just feel like we really got it to be the fullest version of what it could have been.

I also think Jesse’s drumming is insanely awesome on this record, really creative. We started running all of his drums through distortion at a lot of points in the record, and it makes them sound huge and menacing in a way that they haven’t really sounded before. So we really, really enjoyed that.

Continuing with the theme of individuality on the album and how each member gets to shine… I know it's like the worst question to ask artists, but do you have a personal favorite track on the album, one that you had the most fun making, one that is the most meaningful, or one that's just quite cool in a way that is unique to your sound?

The record is still so new for me that I don’t [have a single favorite]. I’m sure in six months I’ll have a favorite, especially if I’m playing the album more. At the moment, I think the best I could give you is four. There are four tracks that I would [consider] my favorites. 

Those four are “Hey Maude,” “Everybody Panic,” “Brass Band,” and “How the World Began.” Those are the ones I just keep coming back to. It also helps that, you know, we didn’t really release those in advance, so I haven’t heard them a lot, either. I also think those four feel like they each did what they set out to do, and we nailed them in the studio, which I’m really proud of.

I love how this album brings together a lot of different sounds; it feels like it draws from all of Jukebox the Ghost's eras.

What do you want listeners to get from Cheers? Are there any particular emotions that you're hoping to inspire or any particular takeaways?

Going back to that list of songs I referred to earlier, I was definitely thinking about how I went through a really hard mental health spell three or four years ago, and some physical illness problems kind of coincided with that. And there was just a lot to work through and, you know, I feel like some of the record for me is almost like… Even though it doesn’t sound personal—it’s not autobiographical lyrically or anything like that—it was, I don’t know, therapeutic for me, working a lot of stuff out. So for me, I think the record gets at a lot of what I was going through during that period in time. 

 So, you know there’s this apocalyptic thread running through “Ramona,” “Us Against the World,” and the “The Machine (Intro)”/”Everybody Panic” sequence. And I guess I like to think there’s some kind of release that happens with the “Raise a Glass (Interlude)”/”How the World Began”/”Cheers!” sequence, which is kind of coming back to that idea that I think we sort of  hinted at on our first record, on “A Matter of Time”: an apocalypse or the end of all things is never actually the end, you know, and every time that things fall apart, it’s actually an opportunity for something new. That was something that kind of guided me when I was having a hard time…

I see “Cheers!” as kind of the summation of that feeling at the end of the record, where it’s just like, “cheers to the everyday,” you know, that idea of just being.

Photo of Jukebox the Ghost by nevbrown

Absolutely. There's a huge catharsis at the end of the album that I feel. And I think that, especially post-pandemic, that's something we all need: a reminder to find joy in the little things in life, especially when there's less access to what we might consider the big things.

We’ve talked a little bit about the songwriting process, including having different songwriters and such. So we were wondering, how does that process differ for different songs or different band members?

 In general, in Jukebox, whoever’s singing wrote the bulk of it, although that’s not necessarily as true now as it was before. There’s a lot of co-writes on this record. “Cheers!” is actually a song I wrote with a friend in LA using a part of a song that Ben had written 12 years ago that we never used for anything. It was just that little bit, just that tiny little bit of music, the “here’s to more of the everyday.” We just had that and tried to write a song around it, and then we brought Ben in and kept building it up. Track by track. And for the “Everybody Panic” suite, I came in with something that we just kept chipping away at and improving, and I ended up writing lyrics. It really, really depends.

Sometimes whoever’s singing is really calling the shots and bringing in something really fleshed out and produced. And then sometimes it’s like, it might start there, but it might be torn down and rebuilt completely. It’s all very track-by-track.

You touched on this earlier when we started talking about the song “Brass Band.” I want to dive deep into that song. How did the production elements come together? Obviously the main focal point of that track is that big low brass riff. Were there any live instrumentals there, or is that all MIDI and production editing stuff? How did that track come to fruition from a technical perspective?

I think one of the amazing things about [the growth of] recording technology in the last ten years is that you used to really be able to tell if there were MIDI horns or MIDI strings happening, and now you can’t.  So most of those horns and strings—I would say 95% of them—are just Ben playing them on the keyboard. And that goes for the whole record. We had one real horn performance on the record, which is that trill in the bridge, the sort-of mariachi thing that happens. And that’s literally our day-to-day manager who happens to play trumpet. So it was very much in-house. Ben has some great horn and string libraries, and he does some scoring on his own for various things, so he just knows what to do with that stuff.

I'm so glad that you've been talking a bit about “Everybody Panic,” because that is my favorite track off the album, and it feels like such a timely song for the pandemic. Was that written specifically for this album and for this time? Or was it an older song that got polished for this album?

 Yeah, it was older. It just took a while to come to fruition. I actually wrote it. I opened an original demo of it recently just to check it out, and I wrote the first version of it in 2015. But it got a lot better. So, yeah, it’s been kicking around for a while.

The part that’s been kicking around for a while is that “everybody panic, but one at a time, people have jobs to get to”—the chorus section. I did rewrite the lyrics during the pandemic, but I think we tried not to have anything on the record that was too overt about where we were at, ‘cause we wanted things to age well and be relatable in five years, you know?

But certainly you can hear it; I feel like you can hear it in “Brass Band” as well. When I first heard it, I was like, “That’s very on the nose for the pandemic. I wonder if it’s too on the nose,” and then I listened again and I was like, “No, that’ll work whenever.”

It does work whenever, but it definitely hits very hard for this time period. But like you said, I think anybody in that headspace at any time can connect with it. Do you know if it was a response to anything particular at the time you wrote it, or was it just a general sentiment?

You know, I think it might have been. I don’t know, this is something that I think about a lot that also appears in my comics a lot: ideas about our relationship with technology and where it’s gotten us and what it’s doing to our heads.

“The Machine” and “Everybody Panic” are sort of my way of trying to make some abstract, magical-realist narrative out of that relationship that we have with technology. My goal was to make it so that it’s not so overt that you couldn’t imagine it was about something else, you know, but that’s certainly what I was thinking about—you know, the idea that we’re all panicking all at once in a period of social upheaval, trapped in our own little worlds and, in the end, only causing panic internally… not doing anything.

All right. So, just to close out here, I think obviously the future is wide open, especially in terms of where the pandemic’s going and where the music industry is going. So, what can we as fans expect going forward from Jukebox the Ghost in terms of future albums and the story of where you guys are going as a band, if you've conceptualized that at all? What does the future hold for Jukebox the Ghost?

You know, I think I might not know much more than anybody else. I mean, we’re going to tour on this record, so we’re going to be announcing that soon. We’re excited about that. Will that tour go completely as planned? I don’t know. So far, we’re one for two on that.

But yeah. I mean, we’re excited to hit the road again. We’re excited that we’ve come up with a way to sustainably record albums, ‘cause I think it just means we can be more ourselves and get the things that are in our brains out into the world more directly. So yeah, it’s been very inspiring to do this album, and it has also inspired me to kind of rethink the way that we’ve whittled things down in the past, come back to the volume of work we have that has never been recorded, and think, “I still like that one and that one and that one and that one.” I don’t know. Hopefully we’ll see a lot of stuff that we wouldn’t have had the budget for in the past.

It will not be another four years before the follow-up to this record is out. I would expect that we would have one very soon.

Cheers by Jukebox the Ghost is now available on all major streaming platforms. Hit the links to stay in the loop with all the awesome music Jukebox the Ghost has to offer.

Taylor McGowan
UJ Copy Editor | More By This Author

Taylor McGowan (she/her) is a soon-to-be graduate of Emerson College’s writing, literature, and publishing program who wants to spend her life helping other people tell their stories. When she’s not reading a fantasy novel or writing, she can usually be found at the piano, playing whatever song has gotten stuck in her head.

Arie Likhtman
UJ Staff Editor for Music & Writer for Outreach | More By This Author

Arie Likhtman is currently serving as the Staff Music Editor and Social Media Outreach writer for The University Journal. He is a student at Butler University studying music industry studies and critical communication and media studies with a minor in philosophy. He has worked as an entertainment journalist, as well as a culture reporter for several publications. He freelances as a contemporary music composer, producer, and critical essay writer.

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