After a decade going their own way, Nashville rawk-pop JEFF the Brotherhood make the leap to a major label
It's an early Wednesday afternoon in July at the Warner Brothers Records offices in midtown Manhattan, and both members of JEFF the Brotherhood are hungover. It stands to reason: after 10 years of near-constant touring and six independently recorded and distributed albums, Nashville-based brothers Jake and Jamin Orall have reason to celebrate. They've just released their seventh studio album, Hypnotic Nights, which is their first on a major label — Warner Bros. Furthermore, the previous evening saw them commemorate the album's release with a performance on Late Show With David Letterman, followed by what appears to be a late night of karaoke. (For the record, JEFF favor '90s soundtrack hits like Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" and Quad City DJs' "Space Jam.")
Despite their years as indie exemplars, the Orralls aren't worried about blowback from their move to the majors. "There are a lot of bands that talk shit on major labels, or preach against them," younger brother and drummer Jamin says. "So if they were to go and sign there would be a lot of trouble. But we've never been like that. We're open to anything. We don't have any rules. We just take everything one thing at a time." Jake, the band's reedy, mustachioed singer-guitarist, puts it more bluntly: "Selling out hasn't happened since the '90s." The duo projects a thoughtful indifference to critics, hype, and trend. When asked if JEFF The Brotherhood consider themselves a part of some larger guitar-rock revival or tradition (See: Japandroids, Ty Segall), Jamin shrugs. "I don't really think about that kind of stuff," he says. "There have always been rock bands, and there always will be."
What has changed, though, is who's paying. "The main thing that's different is that we have access to way more resources," says Jake of JEFF's move to Warner Bros. "It opens up a lot of time for us. For instance, tonight we're playing this show, that's free. And we didn't have to do anything." Indeed, like so much else in the music industry, the power dynamics have shifted. "We thought, alright, what can [Warner Bros.] bring to the table, because we already have everything we need here. They just gave us the impression that they wanted to be a part of what we were doing, in any way they could," says Jake
The result is Hypnotic Nights, co-produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. The album is classic JEFF, a torrent of fuzz-bomb guitar riffs and mind-drilling drums. First single "Six Pack" is a late-summer day-drinking anthem, and Auerbach's fingerprints can be found on tracks like the slow-burning "Region of Fire," which finds the band channeling Aftermath-era Rolling Stones, complete with sitar. The whole thing ends on a swampy, synth-driven cover of "Changes" by the band's beloved Black Sabbath.
Of Auerbach's contribution, he "just let us do our own thing," says Jake. "It was nice to have a third party to bounce things off of. Because you get kind of lost in your own artistic confines." That connection also brought the band into a higher echelon of studio recording, at least by their standards. "[Auerbach's] studio wasn't, like, lavish," continues Jake. "The equipment is just really cool, old equipment. It's really nice space that sounds really good." The album's more left-field instrumental flourishes come as a result of the band's feeling that studio recordings are "not really the same as a live experience. It's not as interesting," Jake says. "You've got to keep people engaged."
If you've been to a JEFF The Brotherhood show, you know that engagement isn't typically a problem. A few hours after our meeting at the Warner Bros. offices, having apparently surmounted their hangovers, JEFF take the stage in front of a packed house at a celebratory (free) concert at Santo's Party House in Chinatown. "I guess this is like our album release show," Jake drawls into the mic. "Sorry it's a little last minute or whatever." No one seems to mind. The crowd promptly looses it as Jamin and Jake launch into churning Hypnotic Nights opener "Country Life," and multiple crowd surfers are aloft within the first minute. One of them dramatically unfurls a bandana printed with the American flag, holding it above his head as the crowd passes him around. Later, a guy wanders by wearing a single flip-flop and says, "It was a great show, but now I can't find my shoe" — human proof that no matter how big their budget, JEFF are still in the business of bringing the rowdy, and business is good.