The Eyebrows: The Eyes Have It
by Daniel Coston
For twenty years, Jay Garrigan has been a part of Charlotte’s most popular bands. Violet Strange, Laburnum, Poprocket, Temperance League, Transmission Fields, and Garrigan. After recording two unreleased albums with Garrigan, Jay Garrigan has now returned with the Eyebrows. All of the hallmarks of Garrigan’s songwriting and vocals are on full display with this new band, but with a renewed sense of purpose, and fun.
Jay Garrigan checked in via email to talk about all things new, old, and well, all things Jay and the Eyebrows.
Tangents Magazine: The Eyebrows! Discuss. How did this band come together?
Jay Garrigan: I wanted to do something different, something in the rock genre with a band that had several layers of voices, yet had an immediate and worldly feel that could move people’s feet and make them dance. Also, I’m singing differently - as in singing or just talking in lower registers and as for approach, trying different forms of consciousness and characterizations. I like three piece bands, but I wanted at least another instrument to explore textures and layers. So that was my aim, to find people crazy enough to make this band a priority and put up with me for several years to come.
Shawn Lynch, who will read later about, is the drummist. Yes, he's a drummist and not a drummer.
Jon Lock, also of the magnificent Bleeps, joined Shawn and I in my basement on bass about a year ago. He brings a real worldly feel to things as he’s internationally toured playing in Reggae/Ska punk bands, a type of music I’ve always enjoyed and Jon makes the low end legit.
Molly Poe was the latest to join. We’ve had a few guitarists and such in the band, who were great, but Molly adds exactly what we need for keys and synth textures. She’s also new to the stage as this is her first band, but she’s not new to music as she’s classically trained and tour managed other bands. I appreciate a new person in the band because she makes us question a lot of the things we assume are universal truths. I always thought the best bands had 1-2 people who were learning and a few others who were experienced. This band fits that mold.
I think the more important thing about The Eyebrows is that we’re all friends. We don’t always see eye to eye, but there’s a mutual respect among us. As long as that exists, I think we will make an excellent rock band.
Tangents: You seem to be having more fun with this band.
Garrigan: I’m trying to focus on writing songs that have an odd retro dance vibe, and I think fun is an essential element of this type of creativity and music. I see bands like B52s, Talking Heads and Pylon having a lot of fun, and I’d like to carry on that sort of thing.
We do still play some of my singer-songwriter muck, but I think that’s because I have a back catalog of these types of songs, and I still like to write a good mopey downer of a song. But, I’m trying to evolve away from that… habit.
And how can you not have fun playing your own songs? It's a dream come true, and I'm lucky to get to experience just that.
Tangents: Describe the new single that you just recorded, and the forthcoming album.
Garrigan: The other day I was listening to one of my favorite records, “Murmur” by REM, which was recorded by Mitch Easter here in Charlotte at the former Reflection studio, and mastered by Greg Calbi up at Sterling Sound in NYC. It kind of hit me just kind of funny, staring at this marvelous record cover, listening to the tones and thinking that The Eyebrows also worked with both of these legends on the upcoming single. It’s something that I always thought was out of reach, and I kick myself for not doing something like this sooner.
We recorded two songs, “It Comes Down Hard” and “The Sun”. We spent a few days recording with Mitch Easter and assistant John Pfiftner at Fidelatorium, and the 45/7” was mastered by Greg Calbi up at Sterling Sound in NYC. We actually recorded and mixed ten songs, which should all go on our full-length record once we can afford it. But, we gotta work to pay for the mastering and production, and that’s no easy task for a new band that doesn’t believe in crowdsourcing. We believe in working and partnerships with labels.
Tangents: How do you balance this group, and playing with Temperance League.
Garrigan: Personally, I like staying out of balance. It keeps me on my toes. I can find a center, or balance, for a brief period of time, but I always get bored and screw that all up. It’s either a blank canvas or total chaos for me… that’s how I roll.
Sometimes it’s hard to fit everything in my head when both bands are playing during the week, plus I have a serious day job that leaves most people winded. With Temperance League, I’ve learned how to play a support role rather than a leading front man. It takes a certain comfort in yourself to play a support role, and honestly I struggle with that more than anything between the bands.
I also play in Amigo sometimes (usually studio work - see their latest EP where I play guitar and keys) and there’s a few other bands I side in from time to time. I try to do less one-offs unless it’s Amigo, because I love them so much.
I’m most proud of The Eyebrows because these are my songs, and I have an awesome group of people who are following what I’m putting out there. There’s no greater honor really than to have pals who are willing to do that. The Eyebrows is something I believe in, even when things are hard or unclear. I’m OK with that too, because the ride along the way is sometimes more interesting than the destination.
Tangents: Talk about the two albums that you recorded as Garrigan for Spectra Records, and how that project led to the Eyebrows?
Garrigan: I think I have to say something to the effect of, what I’m about to say here are my own opinions. I don’t like saying anything negative about anyone, but signing to a label for three years that never paid me a cent for record sales, streaming or publishing was disappointing. Perhaps I’m most disappointed in myself, because I really believed in what the label told me regarding film and T.V. placement, radio play and retail distribution. I totally believed they were going to deliver what they sold me and what I signed for. I treated it as a professional relationship, and I got thrown one cool live show, but unfortunately this scenario does fall into the songwriter held hostage category. I couldn’t release anything new, and the band didn’t understand why we weren’t making any money.
The 2nd record with Garrigan, “Kiss This Broken Star”, never got published. The label dangled a carrot, saying they would put this record out if I signed for three more years. The band at that time was also having personnel challenges, and one lineup had such a bad show, it was probably the worst show of my entire career. I told our then bass player, “Just lay on the floor and play dead. It will sound much better.” I decided to take a break from perfomring live, and didn’t play a show for about a year until Temperance League invited me into their fold to play bass guitar. I never stoped writing songs though.
During this time, I was also suffering from chronic, painful corneal erosion, brought on by botched Lasik surgery, and I had an insane neighbor who is the subject of “It Comes Down Hard.” Sometimes The Eyebrows calls it “the angry neighbor song” which in retrospect, is a better title. So anyway, something had to go, as I was doing everything I could to keep my job with failing eyesight and dealing several times a day with a stalking psycho who had nothing better to do than make my life and my wife’s life miserable.
On one hand, I think the band Garrigan sounded a bit forced (something I agree with Shawn Lynch on). We had a great opportunity and we tried to make the best of it. The songs were overwrought, overthought and perhaps over arranged. But, I’m proud of the work although I don’t play a lot of those songs anymore, and I don’t shed a tear or lose sleep over that batch of lost songs. I’ve moved on.
I started writing a song about you for this batch, that went something like... "Daniel is the man! He takes pictures of my band! And sometimes, he takes ones just of me..." Maybe it's best these songs never saw the light. :)
Tangents: Where do the songs come from? And do they come from different places than they did ten years ago? Twenty years ago?
Garrigan: Writing music is a way I deal with abuse and betrayal, enticement and excitability, mania and depression. It’s just where I always go, and music just happens for me, usually when I’m not in the conscious act of writing it.
Writing songs helped me figure out my feelings, who I am, and often gave me something to feel good about when I had little to nothing else. I was often called an asshole for being creative and trying express yourself as a child. Maybe that’s why I’m such a dramatic performer, because the child in me is terrified. Maybe that’s also why I often feel confrontational when I’m performing. I’m not smiling because I’m dealing with a lot of conflicting feelings, and reliving those every time I get onstage.
Ten and twenty years ago, I wrote a lot of songs about relationships, which were fuel to my songwriting fires. I had a habit of growing toxic relationships, perhaps conditioned by my upbringing. I guess I had a lot to write about in a confessional type of way.
As for the newest batch of songs, I’ve been lyrically challenging myself to go outside of the relationship paradigm. Often I just make up stupid sounding shit. It’s a lot of fun to sing about Avocados and Cows, because life’s enough… love’s too much… but hell, Avocado is kind of a relationship song too. I guess you could say that I'm open to whatever I feel or hear, and have enough skills to capture what's going on in my head. I don't try to judge it. I just try to ride the wave and see where it goes, as the ride often surprises me.
Tangents: Talk about playing with Shawn Lynch. Going back to Poprocket, you’ve played with him now for over 15 years.
That’s 16 years starting in 2000 with Poprocket. He’s one of my best friends and vital to my musical expression. I get to be in two bands with him now, so I’m just very lucky to have a talented and kind friend like him.
Although, people confuse us all the time, which perplexes me as we look nothing alike. It’s like when people confused Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear… it’s just weird. They just hang out a lot, like us I suppose.
Tangents: What does writing and playing music mean to you, 20-plus years into your career?
Garrigan: I wish I were better at writing music. I wish I could make a sustainable living with my songs. Throughout my songwriting career, I’ve always gotten one bit of feedback: “Your songs have something fresh and special, but I’m not sure what it is.” Maybe that’s the biggest compliment in itself that I don’t fit in anywhere.
Also, it’s true what Hunter S. Thompson once said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” Most of the people I’ve met in the music industry are either completely out of it, or are dead at 50/50% ratio. But, there are a few of us who have stuck it out, and they are some of my closest allies and friends.
I’ve never really understood the business side of music. No one really does. I mean, I know how it works logistically, but I’m just not motivated by sales. Sometimes I think just creating enough songs for a release and having it on my hard drive is enough for me, as I have several of those. With The Eyebrows, I’d like to be a part of making it a minor commercial success. It’s a challenge because sales is something I’m very ill-suited for. And, it seems uncool to publicly say something like this, but it’s an Everest I’d like to climb at last once.
Tangents: You love playing the baritone guitar. What kind of songs work best with that guitar?
Garrigan: I like playing all kinds of different instruments as they get my head out of a traditional mode of expression. I fell in love with the Baritone guitar on first strum - it just had this beautiful tone in a key I have not used before (B for those keeping up). The guitar tends to weird bass players out, but Jon Lock saw it as an opportunity to bring in his homemade 3/4 bass guitar. I think playing different instruments in different ways is key to getting somewhere different, and The Eyebrows tries things like this for the sake of trying them, which makes me very happy.
Tangents: Are the Eyebrows a lover, or a fighter?
Garrigan: I’m not one to agree with black/white statements, but I think we love hard like a Jeff Buckley song, and fight hard like four people trying to figure it out together. And it’s getting better, all the time. We'd all fight to love, but we don't love to fight.