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Q&A: Jenny Lewis & Johnathan Rice


Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis and Scottish singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice, a couple for five years, know how to have a good time: They go on shopping sprees at estate sales, watch Jacques Cousteau films, and take long drives up the California coast in their vintage station wagons. It’s only fitting, then, that their debut album as Jenny & Johnny is called I’m Having Fun Now (out August 31).

Like its name implies, the record is a tasty pop confection: The first single, “Scissor Runner,” is a breezy power-pop duet about catching a red-eye flight home to see a lover (something these two know a lot about), while “Big Wave” is a surf-rock jam with Lewis cooing over a frothy chorus of guitar reverb. (Download both from the widgets below).

b From their Los Angeles home, the duo dished about recording I’m Having Fun Now with Bright Eyes whiz Mike Mogis, their upcoming fall tour, and who would win in a tag-team wrestling match: Jenny & Johnny, She & Him, Matt & Kim, or Sonny & Cher.

Hey guys! How’s it going?
Johnathan Rice: Great. Jenny’s on her way to pick up another phone.
Jenny Lewis: Hello!

Wow. I’m impressed that you have two landlines in your house.
JR: You’d be even more impressed if you saw the actual phones.
JL: They’re rotary phones. I’m obsessed with old rotary phones. It started about three years ago with a beautiful peach-colored rotary phone that has a terrible crackle. I also have one really cool black rotary phone. But they’re really frustrating if you’re dealing with an automated service, like Time Warner Cable, because you can’t really participate. Where are all the people, man? Where they’d go?

Tell me how your new album came together.
JR: We’ve been writing songs together since 2005.
JL: Proximity led us to writing together. Johnathan would be working on a song in the living room and I’d be in the kitchen doing the dishes, so I’d sing along. We started singing together first and then writing together. With this particular batch of tunes we wanted to go into the studio with my friend Pier de Reeder [from Rilo Kiley] and record some demos. After seven days in the studio were like, “Whoa this is really fun. We’re playing all these instruments and having a great time, maybe we should take these songs out to Omaha and finish them up with Mike Mogis.”
JR: Mike built a studio in Omaha and kept telling us, “I’d love to give you guys some studio time. Come see the new place.” Nebraska is kind of the center of our musical universe. I made my first record there. Jenny made her records there and we both worked with Mike. It’s a good excuse to spend some time with some our best friends. So we drove my station wagon from L.A. to Omaha.

I understand you two have an obsession with station wagons.
JL: [Laughs] It’s true. There are actually two versions of Johnathan’s car. Two cars. They’re both station wagons, both a turquoise blue color. I didn’t have a car for many years living in L.A. and I drove the Rilo Kiley van around. I can parallel park pretty well — I’m a great driver. Finally I bought this shitty Ford, but Jonathan needed to buy a car so we went to an estate sale near our house. There was a 1977 Mazda station wagon for sale for $850 and we knew that Johnathan had to buy it. On the back of the car was a bumper sticker that said, “I’m having fun now.”We drove it around for a bit, but Jonathan ended up selling it to his friend. His friend got a bunch of tickets and the car was impounded and crushed into a cube. Cut to a couple months ago. We were driving around as we often do, and there was another turquoise station wagon for sale on the side of the road for $950. We knew at that point, having lost the other one, that we needed to buy the car and re-live the fantasy. We remade the bumper sticker and it became the title of our album!

Do you guys ever name your cars?
JL: Yeah, the shitty ford.
JR: We call it “The Salad.”
JL: I bought it after Hurricane Katrina. I think it was one of those Katrina cars that was underwater and re-sold on e-Bay.
JR: That’s a pretty controversial theory. But it certainly smells weird.
JL: It’s a little mildew-y. It was definitely underwater at some point.
JR: It could have been Lake Tahoe.
JL: It could have been at the bottom of Lake Tahoe. Oh! We don’t know if this is true or not, but Jacques Cousteau may have dove to the bottom of Lake Tahoe before he passed away. Apparently he said, “The world is not ready for what’s at the bottom of Lake Tahoe.”There’s something terrible down there.
JR: They say that because it such a mob town, and Al Capone and all these guys were vacationing there and investing in the casinos, that all the bodies from their hits, or murders, were dumped into the lake. Because it’s one of the deepest lakes in the United States and at the bottom it’s extremely cold, the rumor is that Cousteau saw a perfectly preserved army of the dead.

You two have been writing together for years, but how old are these particular songs?
JR: They’re puppies. There’s a song on the record “Slave Driver” that’s only five months old. It was written just before we mastered the record.
JL: Most of the songs were written together.A couple of them have been lying around for a while, like “Switchblade.” But others are just toddlers.

Your website promises darker themes on the album.
JR: Well, there’s no death metal or anything.
JL: But lyrically there are some darker themes on the record. But as hard as I try to sound tough and dark, I still sound cute.
JR: Think of this record as like cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. You either want the white meat or dark meat. Actually, maybe I shouldn’t called this album a turkey.
JL: How about a Tofurky?
JR: It’s definitely not a Tofurky.

What are some of the lyrical themes?
JR: Snakes.
JL: Lots of Ouroboros, it’s that image of the snake eating it’s own tail. You’ve seen it a million times.
JR: We really like that image. There’s so many definitions of what it represents. To us, it represents unity and satisfaction because the snake is eating it’s own tail it can never be hungry and never want for anything. But I’m curious: does the snake ever run out itself to eat? Maybe not.
JL: Well, the people that lived in this house before us were in their 90s and I’ve found that I have more in common with them than I do my peers. They left behind a lot of stuff, like a creepy old key with a skeleton key. I wonder what that goes to? But on the bookshelf was a book about Ouroboros and it sparked a bunch of strange dreams, which lead to a bunch of songs.
JR: We both found ourselves dreaming about snakes, and then we’d be hiking in the mountains in L.A. and we would see a bunch of snakes on the trail.

Do you guys share vocals on each song?
JR: Yep.
JL: When we first went into the studio our best friend Morgan said, “You guys aren’t singing together enough.” So we really over-compensated when we went out to Omaha.
JR: We wanted Jenny & Johnny to be a new band, so it had to sound different. Both vocals are front and center. We’re trying to make a new character almost.
JL: Even with the band name, Jenny & Johnny, we wanted there to be a very distinct male and female presence.

Can we expect more music in the future, or is this a one-off project?
JR: We didn’t put any thought into this record before we made it. [Laughs] What do we do next? It could be anything.
JL: We don’t have any expectations. The songs that we write will determine what we do next. I’m working on a batch of songs and so is Johnathan, so we’ll see what happens.

Does writing, recording, and touring together ever put a strain on your relationship?
JR: Our relationship was born out of traveling and touring. This album marks the most time either one of us have spent in the same place over the course of our entire relationship. We’ve toured all over the world together — it seems pretty normal to us.
JL: It’s the best of both worlds!

You guys are touring this fall. What can fans expect live?
JR: Two of our friends are going to join us. Jason Boesel, who played in Rilo Kiley and has played with both of us for years, and Tod Adrian Wisenbaker on guitar from Whispertown 2000, an L.A. band.
JL: He’s a cool ass guitar player.
JR: We’ll be opening for Pavement and Belle and Sebastian.
JL: And Superchunk!

Pavement is one of your guys’ favorite bands!
JR: Yeah, we’re not even going pretend to play it cool.
JL: We’re going to play it super nerdy. I’ve never seen them live so I’m really looking forward to it. I love Wowee Zowee. That was the first Pavement record I bought.
JR: I like Terror Twilight.

Who would win a tag team battle: Jenny & Johnny, She & Him, Matt & Kim, or Sonny & Cher?
JR: Whew. I don’t know. Jenny and I and Zooey [Deschanel] and Ben [Gibbard] have dinner dates together all the time, so that’s a hard one. But I guess that’s not She and Him, that’s She & Ben.
JL: Our answer is definitely She & Ben.