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Mellowdrone – Going Against The Grain

Jonathan Bates seemed to know he would get to this point at some point. He just had to keep his personal ethics in tact, stay true to himself and keep moving forward.

As the lead singer/songwriter/guitarist for his group Mellowdrone, in 2003 Bates released two EPs in a very DIY fashion, including A Demonstration of Intellectual Property and Go Get ‘em Tiger on ARTist Direct. After many rave reviews, successful tours with the Killers, Secret Machines and Elbox, and getting out of his old recording contract, 2006 presented a new album (that contains some material from both EPs), Box, on 3 Records/Red Ink and a well deserved headlining tour all their own.

He and his fellow band members Tony De Matteo (guitars), Greg Griffith (bass), and Scott Ellis (drums) will arrive in Denver this Thursday to play the gorgeous yet biting tracks from Box at hi-dive, which will no doubt please many a fan of both past and present alternative rock favorites, from Depeche Mode and House of Love to She Wants Revenge and Editors. Bates will no doubt bring with him a few surprises, which just adds to his unique character.

Kaffeine Buzz: On your MySpace I saw an image for Boyz 2 Men being used for the song “It’s So Hard To Say” and I thought maybe there was a technical glitch or something. But when I listened to the song and saw that they were one of your influences, I realized it was done on purpose. At first I thought it was kind of tongue-and-cheek, but when I heard it, their style of harmonies on there, so it was all done on purpose.

Jonathan Bates: Oh no, I took it very seriously. The reason why I picked that song was, as a kid, my dad was really into that song. As I’ve move forward I’ve started going back to memories and things like that, and I just thought that song would be really nice. It wasn’t tongue and cheek at all. It’s legitimate. We like that group.

KB: I think it came off really well. It comes off very differently from anything else you’ve done. It’s always nice to hear different facets of any band’s style. I got a chance to see the new video for “Oh My.” Who directed that and how were you involved in that creative process?

JB: It was directed by Vincent Hancock out of Chicago. He came up with the idea. You know, we have this over-the-top song and I wanted a video that was the opposite, like making it as graceful and slow as possible. So he asked, ‘What if you were falling out of the sky in slow motion?’ and I was, ‘If you can make that happen, that would be great.’ It was all his idea. We just showed up in the desert for two days and jumped off platforms (laughing). It was great.

KB: How did you pull that off, using some stunt materials where you fall into an air-filled mattress or something?

JB: Yea, for the wide shots we used this 15-foot scaffolding and kind of like a gymnast pad. And for the close up stuff, that’s just real dirt (laughing). You just had to commit, you know?

KB: Well, you can definitely appreciate that since there are so many videos out there that spend so much money and they look just like so many other videos out there.

JB: This video cost $5,000 to make.

KB: See, that’s beautiful. You see ones that cost $300,000 and they’re redundant. Now with the recording, it seemed like you were definitely doing it DIY where you were recording all over the place, like in your room and someone else’s apartment.

JB: Oh yea, when I quit school and went to L.A. I was living in a friend of a friend’s dining room for $400 bucks a month and that’s where the first E.P. was done and the things needed to form the band. So a lot of the stuff that’s on the final record was either started or completely done in the bedroom.

KB: Some of the best recordings are done in the bathroom.

JB: Yea, it has nothing to do with location. If the song is a piece of shit, it’s a piece of shit.

KB: Yep, exactly. And it’s basically working with what you have to move things forward. How did that eventually lead to you guys hooking up with Red Ink?

JB: For a year we just toured on our own. We had two E.P.s and we just did it by ourselves. We were stuck in this contract with the former label that we were in. Finally they let us go and Sony and Red Ink came along, ‘We’d like to put your record out.’ And we’re like, ‘Cool.’ The guys who run the label are friends of ours, so it was a very organic, easy kind of decision.

KB: That whole process can be quite an endeavor so it’s good to have friends in your corner.

JB: It’s high school politics with lots of money, you know what I mean?

KB: No kidding. I had heard that the lyrics to “And Repeat” were inspired by some conversation you had with someone at a record label, I don’t know who, but where you had gotten annoyed with how he was trying to influence your songwriting.

JB: That wasn’t that label. There was a period of time where I was being courted by a lot of A&R people from different labels, so I got to see the whole spectrum of ‘how to be courted.’ One of the experiences I’d had…in retrospect I felt like…you know, all the guy was doing was trying to do his job, to ‘get you to sign here now.’ So he just sat me down and explained to me, how to write a song even though the dude’s never written one in his whole life. That night I went back home and just did that right quick. The acronym for “And Repeat” is A&R, so I had my manager send it to him the next day and he called back, ‘Exactly! This is what I’m talking about!’ (laughs)

KB: God, that’s funny.(laughs) That story is so classic. I mean, how many times have artists like yourself had to go through that kind of thing?

JB: Anybody who’s been courted by an A&R guy can tell you the same. I can tell you what they look like now. I can tell you how they dress. (laughs) That’s why I feel like a snot, ‘cause I don’t want to come across as A&R bad man because it’s a tough job in theory. How do you all of the sudden get someone to trust you and sign their life away? I wouldn’t be able to do it. But at the same time it wasn’t fun to be on the other side of it.

KB: Yea, their positions at labels can also be kind of volatile, which is tough for them and who they sign. It’s kind of like what Chris Rock says, ‘Here today, gone today.’

JB: ‘Here today, gone later today.’

KB: Exactly. And with the song “Fashionably Uninvited,” it sounds like you’re observing kind of the atmosphere of Los Angeles where you live.

JB: You know, Los Angeles gets a lot of shit, ‘cause that’s the entertainment capital.

KB: Yep.

JB: But as far as like, sleaziness, everywhere it’s the same exact ratio. Every city I’ve ever been to, every country I’ve ever been to…

KB: I know, you can’t escape it.

JB: The only difference is that L.A. is 90% entertainment industry and everybody’s interested in the entertainment industry so everybody knows how sleazy it is but nobody knows how sleazy linoleum salesmen are. L.A. to me, I love it. All the people that I love live there. For me California is [great] because of geography; you can drive anywhere and within four hours you can have snow in the mountains, or you can go to the desert, or up in the canyons. I’m not a hippie but I love that shit.

KB: Oh, I know. I lived in California my whole life until I moved to Denver five years ago. I’m finally going back next week to L.A. Straight from the airport I’m driving to the beach. I’m going to be the freak girl who kisses the sand when I get there. I mean, I love it here very much. But I do miss all those elements that you just said.

JB: Yea, I know. When I’m loosin’ it or something I can just drive somewhere, chill out, watch the sun set into the Pacific Ocean in Malibu.

KB: Yep. There is a reason why it’s so expensive to live there. Speaking of cities, what have been some of your favorites on the tour and have you had a chance to go over to Europe as well?

JB: I toured with Jonny Mar when it was just me for about a month in Europe and the U.K., and that was about three years ago. And then with the band about a year ago. But never seriously. But our favorite spot so far, ‘cause we’re in the middle of our tour right now, I’d say are San Diego, Austin and New York. They’ve been really, really receptive, we’ve had great shows. Like in Austin, we’ve had kids come up and sing and just tear the place apart, which is great, especially for a band like us, you know?

KB: Well yea, because even with the slower songs there’s still a pretty deep groove there and there’s a lot of danceablity throughout the whole album. Sorry, but I have to ask how you hooked up with Jonny Mar?

JB: He saw me play and we were both on the same label that had gotten dissolved. I was playing a bar in L.A. He was there doing something and he came to see me and after the show he was very nice and very supportive and said, ‘I’m going out and I’d like to take a real, simple opening act.’ His tour set up was huge; he had like 30 people going with him. He said, ‘I want something simple and new, and I like you’re shit.’ So I was like, ‘That’s the nicest thing you could have ever said to me.’

KB: God, no kidding.

JB: Then after the U.S. tour, which was about two months, he was like, ‘Do you want to go to Europe with me.’ I was like, ‘I can’t afford it.’ He said, ‘You can just stay on my bus.’ (laughs)

KB: Oh, nice!

JB: So I spent a month on Johnny’s bus, trading MP3s and hearing stories about…Morrisey. That was good.

KB: I can only imagine. You should write a book.

JB: He should write a book.

KB: Yea! No kidding! How come he hasn’t gotten around to that?

JB: I know. It was fun just to listen to him drop names. He wouldn’t do it in a facetious way at all, it would be like, ‘I remember when Jonny Greenwood was showing me OK Computer and he was all nervous about it.’ Then I would be like, ‘Wow. That must have been a trip.’ (laughs)

KB: Well the thing is, if someone says his name like that they would more than likely be name dropping, so yea. (laughs) That must have been quite the experience.

JB: Well yea. And at the time his drummer was Zach Starkey, which is Ringo Starr’s son, so it would be kind of weird whenever we’re playing a show and it would be really humbling, someone saying, ‘Ringo’s coming tonight. Just so you know, Ringo’s coming tonight.’

KB: Ah, Jesus.

JB: Yea, you’d get all fucking nervous.

KB: Oh man. (laughs) So what was he like?

JB: Zach’s great. I never got to meet Ringo, ‘cause A – I didn’t want to be that dude.

KB: Right. Right.

JB: And Zach, because he’s the son of Ringo, he’s been fucked with and bothered his whole life. So I never even went down that road with him. We just hung out and smoked, and played guitar. I think he’s playing in Oasis now.

KB: We were just talking about them the other day and wondering what they’re up to, thinking back on the fights that used to have that would eventually lead to Noel showing up for an acoustic set while Liam would be up in the rafters somewhere, watching from the audience.

JB: They’ve all settled down, so they get along alright now.

KB: Yea, I guess age and maturity does that to you after a while.

JB: Right.

KB: So, are you introducing any new songs on the tour?

JB: Well, we’re playing all the songs off the new album and doing whatever. That’s the whole thing about live shows. We’ve gotten to a point where every night we can just kind of fly by the seat of our pants.

KB: Absolutely. I can expect people would appreciate that, because that’s the whole point of going to a live show, right?

JB: You tell me. (laughs) Ya know, when I go to a live show that’s what I like. But to each his own.


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