Roar writer Matthew Seaman interviews JR JR, an American indie-pop band, on their collaboration with Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why’ and future plans.
Despite what the government might indicate, the arts industries are more important now than ever. In this time of isolation, shutdowns and lockdowns, many of us have turned to the arts as compensation for the social interaction we once had. Whilst in-person concerts are still inconceivable, we have relied on music, TV and film to bring us what we cannot obtain elsewhere. The pandemic-era has seen a surge of creativity within the music industry especially, with virtual collaborations and concerts taking popularity online, allowing us a surprisingly intimate form of viewing, with the artists ‘in our living rooms’.
Over the lockdown, Taylor Swift released her new album ‘Folklore’, and both Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey have promised albums in the near future. With Billie Eilish teasing a big-budget virtual concert this month, expected to attract millions of viewers, this appears to be a time of creativity and innovation.
Two musicians who pride themselves upon this idea of creativity, ‘constant writing’ and producing a ‘steady stream’ of music, is the indie-pop band from Detroit, Michigan – JR JR. I spoke to Joshua Epstein about the way in which they formed the band, their collaboration with Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why’, and their plans for the future.
Roar: For any of our readers who are new to JR JR, please tell us about how the two of you (Joshua and Daniel) started playing together, and at what point did you realise you had created something special?
Joshua: We each had bands that we fronted in the Detroit area for a few years prior to working with one another. We had played on the same bill a few times but weren’t really friends yet. I heard an album that Daniel had written and recorded by himself, and it blew my mind. I had wanted to experiment working with another fully self contained artist and so I reached out via a mutual friend. We got together in Daniel’s grandmother’s basement and wrote our first song together called “Simple Girl”. From there we got together a few more times, each day writing a new song.
Eventually I played the songs for some friends and the reaction they gave was not like anything I’d experienced before. I think seeing other people react so favourably made us realise that we “had something”.
R: One unmissable element of ‘JR JR’ is your cover artwork. You’re recognised for your bold and abstract designs. Please could you tell us about how you choose/design them. Is there somebody specific who creates them, or is it a group process?
J: The past few albums were art directed by a guy called Julian Gross. Julian played in a band called Liars whom I loved.
We find that the most successful collaborations with visual artists often involve us being heavily involved in the concerting and discussion of the work, but then trusting collaborators to bring their thing to it. In that way, our approach mirrors our own musical partnership. Try to find someone whose work you admire and then trust them to bring that to the project instead of micromanaging.
R: Anybody who has watched your music videos will remember how striking the video for ‘Gone’ is, featuring dancing legs without their top halves. Could you tell us how that idea came about?
J: The “Gone” video is another perfect example of our philosophy in collaboration. A company called “Los Peréz” from Barcelona actually came up with the idea. We admired their work and how bold they were with their artistic choices. We helped concept and impart our own ethos/aesthetic and then they made the video in Spain without us!
R: Some of our readers will know your song ‘Same Dark Places’ from Season 1 Episode 8 of Netflix’s ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’. How did that collaboration come about, and what impact did it have on your career?
J: Same Dark Places was written in my parents’ basement in Michigan with Daniel, myself and Ben West (our frequent collaborator/producer/mixer).
At the time we wrote it, we had our first song on the radio in the States in a meaningful way.
The creator of ’13 Reasons Why’ was a fan of the band and they had asked about using another song in an episode. When we learned what the show was about, we realised that the message of “Same Dark Places” might fit the vibe of the show and mentioned it to them. It certainly helped the song gain exposure when the series did so well, and it changed our career—but not in the way you might think.
The song started performing well, and we needed a follow up to our biggest “hit” to date so it seemed like a natural song to make a featured single. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers Records felt that the song was too dark in terms of its lyrical content to make a “single”. This was the point where we decided we should leave the label—the beginning of the end with Warner.
R: What are your plans going forward? We love your latest release: ‘I Made My Peace With It’, so what is next for ‘JR JR’, as we go through this rather strange period in history?
J: I think we have more of an artisan’s mentality than many bands in that we just write all the time and always will. We feel lucky to be surviving and—at times—thriving given the current global climate. Hopefully there will be a steady stream of musical output from us over the next year.
R: And finally – how do you want to be remembered in years to come? What is the effect you hope to have had on your fans around the world?
J: I am a big believer in the concept that you make things to the best of your ability and then once you release them into the world, you’re no longer in control. I hope that we get to be musical artists for the rest of our lives, and that people recognise the amount of quality material we have and will continue to release. But ultimately you only get to try to be as good a person as you can and make the best work you can and history does whatever it will with your legacy and image over time.
You can listen to JR JR’s latest single ‘I Made My Piece With It’ below.