Contrary to doomsayer rumor, rock music doesn’t need saving. But a wake-up call is long overdue, and this is it. Actually, not just a wake-up call, but a joyous reunion of rock with its oft-forgotten prodigal twin, the roll — with papa blues and mama soul along for the ride, too. All of which makes Pardon Me the perfect introduction to one of the most electrifying young bands in America — or at least the next best thing to experiencing Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights live. Literally.
Don’t be fooled by the good Southern manners implied by the title of Pardon Me, the major-label debut by Dallas’ Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights. The walloping roundhouse punch of Pardon Me’s lead-off title track and everything else packed into Tyler and Co.’s Texas-sized can of rock ’n’ roll whoopass. “Hey!” Tyler shouts after the opening salvo of guitars lands like a gauntlet slap across the face. “Can you hear me? Can you feel me, coming through your stereo?” Then comes the coup-de-grace, a shot of Hendrix-laced adrenaline plunged deep into the listener’s heart and soul by a diabolically persuasive Dr. Feelgood. “Maybe it’s been too long since rock ’n’ roll turned you on,” sneers Tyler, with equal measures of promise and threat. “So pardon me, just let it set you free.”
And that’s when things get loud.
“We recorded it live,” Tyler says of the Pardon Me sessions in Nashville with producer Jay Joyce (known for his work with Cage The Elephant, John Hiatt, Patty Griffin, Audio Adrenaline, Crowded House). “We were really critical about keeping things in the pocket and giving it a groove, but letting the songs breathe and feel alive was the main thing that was really important to us. And because we’d played those songs so much before going into the studio, for the most part it wasn’t that hard. We didn’t really pull our hair out over any of the songs.”
It’s clear from the finished results — be it storming rockers like “Young & Free” and “Gypsy Woman” or gut-wrenching, slow-burning beauties like “She Wears a Smile” and “Paint Me a Picture” — that the band expended just as much sweat and passion in the studio as they do night after night onstage. Time was when the idea of a band honing its craft and reputation one show at a time was the rule rather than the exception, but in this era of American Idol insta-stars and overnight hipster blog sensations, Tyler and the Northern Lights are a throwback in the best sense of the word. The core lineup of lead singer, guitarist Jonathan Tyler, guitarist Brandon Pinckard, drummer Jordan Cain and bassist Nick Jay may have only made its public debut at the dawn of 2007, but the ensuing three years have been a blur of full-tilt rock ’n’ roll showmanship worthy of prime James Brown and the early Rolling Stones or the E Street Band at their hungriest. The inspired addition of singer Mo Brown to the fold early on pushes the sass and swagger needle into the red, with a supporting cast of horn and organ players on deck when whim or venue calls for even more firepower. But no matter how many people are onstage, the exhilarating energy is the same. And that goes for whether the band’s playing it in front of a few dozen strangers in a bar, a few hundred diehard fans in a packed club or arena crowds in the thousands while opening for heavyweights like AC/DC, ZZ Top, Kid Rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Deep Purple.
The best shows, enthuses Tyler, are those where the band and audience become one. And it happens a lot more often that not, even at massive gigs like the Austin City Limits Music Festival. “To be honest, I try to make every show like that,” says the 24-year-old singer, who can play a mean lick but happily shares lead guitar duties with Pinckard — freeing him to work crowds up into a wild frenzy. “I see my role as being less of a rock star — like, ‘I’m up here, look at me!’ — and more like we’re all in the same place, hanging out together and having a party, and the band’s just driving the car. At the end of the day, you are entertaining people, but I’ve tried from the beginning to be really uninhibited and free. The idea is letting everything be exactly what it is — not trying to control the show, not trying to control yourself, but rather, letting yourself be out of control. That’s what makes it great.”
Learning to be out of control was more than just a revelation for Tyler and the rest of the band — it was their genesis. The friendships in the group actually go a lot farther back than 2007. Tyler moved to Dallas from Birmingham, Alabama when he was 16, three years after teaching himself guitar via a Slash (Guns ‘N Roses) guitar book and obsessive studying of Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson and even Metallica. It was in the Big D that he met Texas native Pinckard and soon after, Oklahoma transplants Cain and Jay. Together they played the local all-ages circuit and even generated a smattering of label interest. Problem was, they were all too young and inexperienced to have much of anything to say. “We just hadn’t lived yet, you know?” Tyler says with a laugh. “It was just a bunch suburban middle-class kids trying really hard, but not having any substance because we didn’t have any problems yet. I didn’t have anything to write about.” So they pulled the plug and split up.
“We played until we were about 20, and that’s when we discovered booze and drugs, and we quit. Just basically started experimenting with everything. I’m not trying to glamorize any of it, but we went from pure as driven snow to really into some really crazy stuff. It was a real wake up call when one of my closest friends was lost to an overdose.”
Fortunately, Tyler maintained just enough control during that time to keep writing, channeling all of those eye-opening (and frequently harrowing) new life experiences into songs that he started performing solo acoustic from any stage or street corner he could find. In stark contrast to his earlier songs, these postcards from the edge had teeth and hard-earned soul to them, and it wasn’t long before he’d gained enough traction to warrant hitting the studio. With a band. So he rounded up his old friends, all of whom had lived just as hard and wild as he had over their year apart, and the slightly older but much more torn and frayed gang knocked out their independent debut, Hot Trottin’, in five days. They had no idea what they were doing, but this much was certain: The second time around, everything about the music they were playing felt real. And it only got more so once they took their new songs on the road. Crowds, critics, fellow musicians and music industry scouts all seemed to agree, too. Within a year, they were showcasing for virtually every major label in America, winning fans like Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes and racking up glowing reviews across the country.
But when they signed to Atlantic’s F-Stop Music in late 2008, Tyler wanted to do more than just bottle that thunder and lightning on disc for the band’s major-label debut. He wanted to make sure that the songs — all born on acoustic guitar — maintained that close-to-the-bone integrity that spawned the whole wild ride in the first place. The band was introduced to a half-dozen different producers before finding the perfect fit in Joyce — a name Tyler threw into the hat himself. A guitarist, songwriter and producer whose studio credits span everything from modern garage rock (Cage the Elephant) to mainstream country (Jack Ingram), Joyce was Tyler’s pick first and foremost because of his penchant for working with great songwriters, most notably John Hiatt and Patty Griffin. “There’s usually two schools of thought in the studio: there’s guys who are really good at getting sounds, and there’s guys who are really good at getting better songs,” says Tyler, “but I wanted both of those. Jay was a guy who could do all around anything, so going with him was a no-brainer for me. I really wanted to find a producer who would be like another person in the group, who would sit down with us and we’d all go, ‘OK, let’s listen to this song on acoustic guitar, and then work on making it better from there.’ Because songwriting, to me, that’s the most important part.”
After you’ve got the songwriting down, well, that’s when you just let go and let the spirit of the performance and moment take over, and follow it wherever it takes you — right up to and over the edge. The only rule — and, looking back to band members’ own pre-rock-’n’-roll-wake-up-call days, it’s one they’ve all learned from experience — is that the songs must always be 100-proof real.
“The bottom line is, we love playing music and making music, but we want to have a clear conscience about everything we’re doing,” insists Tyler. “Music can bring out a lot of your soul, it can bring out deep parts of you, but I can’t write songs or sing songs or do any of it if any part of it feels contrived. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but we’re happy with what’s happening now, being able to live the way we are. I can only hope our music moves people as deeply as it moved us in making it."
And so it begins. The story of Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights has yet to be written, but it is sure to be a page-turner and one-hell-of-a wild ride.