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Featured: Jay O’Rourke Band

| June 2, 2020

Like many musicians releasing music during the pandemic, Jay O’Rourke had different plans before the virus hit. His band’s new 5–song EP was originally scheduled as a full-length album, but COVID-19 changed all that. The acclaimed guitarist’s third release in four years shows he’s incredibly prolific. Boom Daddy Boom continues a course he charted on 2018’s Sumthin’ Good, a soulful, bluesy bounty of songs steeped in electric Chicago blues with a touch of Muscle Shoals soul. On top of that, O’Rourke became sidetracked when family duties called in December. IE spoke to the former Insiders guitarist as he was finishing a temporary recording studio in Northern California.

IE: You’re in California working from a remote studio. Was this your plan initially, or was it because of the virus that your plans changed?

Jay O’Rourke:  It’s because of the virus. I assumed that I would go back and forth while finishing the five songs we were going to release. I spent the better part of last year writing songs and recording stuff all year long, five days a week. And I’d narrowed down about a hundred ideas to 14 songs. And then my mother started getting sick.

So, I started having to go back and forth and put her house in Arizona on the market. Anyway, I’ve got nine songs that all they need are background vocals. I’ve got some great singers that I want to come in and sing on these songs, and I refused to let them go until they’re that good. So anyway, I had these five songs; I thought it went well together.

IE: It’s stressful, I bet.

JOR: Yeah, it was. And it happened rather quickly, and fortunately, I got all the family business done before this bullshit with the virus happened. I saw no reason to have any gear out here whatsoever. At first, all I did was just drink and watch The Sopranos over and over again (laughs). I slowly started putting some gear together – it’s been difficult, and it’s expensive – but I think we may be here for some time.

I miss being in Chicago very much because I’ve had a studio on my property for 30 years. Even when I was touring and stuff, this is the longest I’ve been away from that house since I was 29, 30 years old.

IE: There’s nothing wrong with California (laughs).

JOR: Where we are is wonderful. This house is incredible, and it’s Northern California – it’s paradise, but it’s another man’s paradise. It just reminds me of my parents so much. And because of all the legal and real estate [issues] and all these things that I had to do in late December, I haven’t had much of a chance to really process this stuff.

IE: Viewing your social media, it looks like your studio is ready for making music.

JOR:  Yes, and we just made a video for one of the songs called, “Stop Pushin’ Me, “ on the new record. And we just did it with our iPhones in our own houses. Grant (Tye), the guitar player, was in Florida. So, he’s got stuff with him out on the beach, and the beach is completely empty because of quarantine. I’ve got a good friend named Lou Hinkhouse, he’s a big music guy, and he’s a great video editor. He worked for NBC. So anyway, he’s like a lot of these guys, I don’t think he has work. So anyway, we could take all the video, send it to him and he put together something pretty nice. I think it’s fun. So I’m going to continue on that route.

IE: The EP is five songs. Tell us about the other music that you’re still putting together.

JOR: I have nine songs completed, except for background vocals. I wanted to use some really good soul/R&B singers. There’s a guy named Robert Cornelius that sang on my last record. He also sings with Poi Dog Pondering, and he had his own band for many years. He’s the nephew of Don Cornelius from Soul Train. Very deep voice, very resonant. And there’s a woman named Renee, everybody calls her “Squeaky,” and she’s sung with Nick Tremulis for many, many years and we’ve become friendly. And I think she’s an incredible singer. [With me] it’s the Leon Russell school of singing, I just croak it out and try to get people to listen. Singing is not something that I’ve always done, and I find it to be very challenging. And a lot of it is confidence; a lot of it is just being in a certain headspace and being aware of when it’s there and using it and fucking getting on it. You can’t be like, “Oh yeah, I remember what it felt like to be inspired.”

IE: Yeah. But it fits you. That’s the thing I noticed about Sumthin’ Good and Boom Daddy Boom. It’s passionate. You seem to really feel it with your albums, and it feels like you’re really in a good place now, making music.

JOR:  Well, I am. I’ve got an engineer, a young guy that I found while he was still in college and he and I worked together all the time. His name is Teddy Thornhill. The other guys in the band are so busy, scheduling can be a little difficult, so I try to optimize it when they’re around. But it’s a great group of people.

We don’t talk a lot about the songs. I make demos. I start by putting ideas on my phone, and then after a few months, Teddy and I take all the stuff off my phone and load it into pro tools and then go through it. And then, I will put together maybe two more demos that map out the parts and structure of the song, the key, and the tempo and these things. I send those guys these demos, and I try to do them rather quickly so they know pretty much what they’re supposed to do when they show up.

IE: You’ve spent a big chunk of your career engineering records for other people, but the Jay O’Rourke Band is a relatively new development. What inspired you to begin making your music again?

JOR: My father got sick. And it scared the fuck out of me to see this start to happen with my dad, who was so vital and always, in my opinion, the smartest person in the room. And I thought, “Well, I’m getting older, I need to do something that matters to me. Whether it matters to anybody else, so what.” And I started a band with a couple of people called The Lucky 3 Blues Band. And Jim Desmond and Frank Raven were in that band, and I just loved it. And we were doing really well, and it was a small little thing. [Over time, it became The Jay O’Rourke Band], and some of us have been friends for over 30 years and worked together in one way or another. So, it’s a very pleasant experience, it always is.

IE:  If we get a window in the fall and you could perform, and we could get a hundred people in a club, would you want to get the band back together to promote the record?

JOR:  Absolutely. If it’s safe, I would love to. Yeah, I would do that. I don’t want to be a part of the problem. I feel that by staying home as much as I can, and all that, at least I’m not part of the problem. I may not be helping, but I’m not contributing to what could be the decline of other people’s health. But I would love to play [live] again!

IE:  You’ve got all this music in the can. What are you doing with the music you finished now that things are opening up a little bit?

JOR:  I’ll just send the files off to a guy named Mike Tholen, who’s down in Southern California. He lived in Chicago for many years, he worked with Ministry, and he’s worked with lots of bands in Chicago. I’ve been working with him now for years, and we have a flexible workflow [arrangment] between us. There’s not a great demand for what I’m doing. It’s not like it’s the next Pixar film, they don’t say, “Oh my God, we’ve got to get this out, [meet] these financial demands, and you’re going to miss a release quarterly.” Like when I (with The Insiders] was on Epic records. So it can wait, and I’m just going to bite the bullet and start writing songs again. My girlfriend is trying to get me to swim. So yeah, she’s like tan now and swims a hundred laps a day.

-John Vernon

Jay O’Rourke Band’s Boom Daddy Boom is available now

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