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Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights Readies Its Major Label Debut

For the past few years, Nick Jay, Brandon Pinckard, Jonathan Tyler, Jordan Cain and Mo Brown have been the toast of the local music scene. Quite literally, in fact: For the second year in a row, Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights headlined the Granada Theater’s annual New Year’s Eve festivities.
Dylan Hollingsworth

Two dudes walk into a bathroom. They look a little partied out, if also a little victorious, smiling as they stumble toward the urinals.

"Dude," one of the pair says. "That was the best 16 dollars I ever spent."

His partner-in-pee-break concurs: "Seriously."

The first, pleased with his choir—and now multi-tasking—expands: "I spent $60 this summer to see Dave Matthews."

"Yeah."

"And it'd have to be really good to match what we just saw."

"Yeah," the second dude, appearing to enjoy the conversation despite the setting, replies. "Plus, you got a free CD tonight."

They stand shoulder to shoulder in agreement. Surely, were they not preoccupied, they'd have high-fived by now.

It's been a good night at the House of Blues. Just moments ago, the draw of the night, Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights, wrapped a 90-minute performance that showed the fruits born from three years of 200-plus shows a year and opening slots for the likes of AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock. With his five bandmates bouncing and swaying behind him, Tyler, the engaging frontman, shimmied about the stage looking very much the part of a rock 'n' roll icon—a sort of Mick Jagger-meets-Kid Rock hybrid with sweat dripping from every pore as he tossed his head full of hair around in time with the notes from his guitar and his shrill screams.

If there is a true rock star in Dallas music, it's Jonathan Tyler.

But a couple hours before, in the comfort of his band's green room, which sits in a nook above the House of Blues stage with a window overlooking the entire venue, a very different Tyler is on display.

He is calm. Reserved. Mostly, he is quiet. Friends meander in and out of the room and pleasantries are exchanged, but there is little revelry to speak of. No last-minute rehearsal, either. Just a joint being lazily passed about the band members and some cohorts as the headliners await their turn to take the stage.

Tyler, having noticed his bass player Nick Jay glancing out the window at the crowd gathering in the venue, looks up from his spot on one of the room's chairs, taking a break from cuddling with his Hollywood girlfriend, Jenny Wade, who'll star in the upcoming shot-in-Dallas buddy-cop Fox series The Good Guys.

"How's it looking out there?" he asks.

"It looks pretty good," a pleased Jay replies. "The whole floor is packed."

Tyler nods, also pleased.

It may feel like just another show—the nonchalance of the room sure implies as much—but it isn't.

Tonight, whether the band wants to admit it or not, marks a major milestone for its career. This evening will celebrate the impending release of the band's debut major-label album, Pardon Me. It's the band's second release in three years, the follow-up to its 2007 debut, Hot Trottin', a pleasing if poorly mixed collection of Southern rock-meets-classic rock anthems that the band, after having sold more than 10,000 copies, will now discontinue. As far as most music fans outside of Dallas are concerned, that disc's existence will now serve as nothing more than a footnote. For the rest of the country, and in effect, for Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights, Pardon Me is the band's formal introduction. On Tuesday, April 27, the album will earn its release from Atlantic Records and become available for purchase nationwide.

At this show, though, the band is making it available to its hometown fans a little early: Everyone at this show will leave with an early copy of the disc to call his or her own.

On the stage below, The Orbans, the second of the band's two local opening acts, wrap up their set. It's as much a cue as Tyler needs. The singer rises, looks around at his bandmates scattered about the room and starts murmuring about getting ready to perform. Over the course of the next few minutes, The Northern Lights follow suit, ending their conversations and gathering any items they may need—guitar picks, drinks, what have you. Drummer Jordan Cain crosses the room to grab some drumsticks.

"Oh my God, I'm so nervous," he says in a tone of obvious sarcasm. His bandmates smile dismissively and file out the room, then down the stairs toward the stage.

Time to perform.

Maybe this is just another night. Then again, maybe it isn't.

A few days earlier, Tyler is sitting with a Pabst Blue Ribbon can in hand on the patio at the Double Wide, the much-adored rock bar located on the edge of Deep Ellum, catching up with a group of friends he hasn't seen in months. As has been the case for the past three years, he's been on the road. The friends here—among them a few musicians—haven't.

As they swap stories, there's something noticeably absent from Tyler's other hand: a cigarette.

 

On the covers for both Hot Trottin' and Pardon Me, Tyler is smoking a cigarette, invoking old classic rock 'n' roll clichés. Today, he's wearing a nicotine patch. Hasn't touched a smoke in five days, he says. He's trying to work on his voice, he explains.

"I need to," he says, with a smile. "Some of these notes I've got"—notes Tyler wrote for himself—"are hard to hit. And we're doing all these morning radio shows to promote the album."

His voice needs to be on point. People are going to be paying attention now.

So maybe he's just agitated when he gets to talking about the state of things in Dallas music these days.

"Deep Ellum is dead, man," he says, repeating the eyeroll-inducing words uttered by so many others over the past few years, lamenting the neighborhood's lack of a tangible music scene since the turn of the millennium. "There aren't many bands any more that can really fill a room."

Tyler's in a nostalgic mood, remembering the first times his first bands ever played the neighborhood clubs.

"We were, like, full-blown religious kids," the congenial 25-year-old says, laughing and recalling the efforts of his previous band, an indie-rock outfit called Auckland. Three of his Northern Lights bandmates were in that group, too—Jay and Cain, plus guitarist Brandon Pinckard, who has played guitar with Tyler since they met as 15-year-olds at church in the North Dallas suburbs.

For the most part, Tyler laughs off everything about Auckland. But even as he shares his earliest Deep Ellum war stories—like the time he and his band had to chase down a bum who'd stolen a backpack filled with clothes—it's clear that those times had a major impact on Tyler, glorifying the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. He tells the stories as tales of caution, but, at the same time, he does so with a full grin.

Yet, by the time he turned 17, Auckland's appeal had worn off. The band broke up. It was a mutual thing, explains Pinckard, who had grown disenchanted with its efforts to win local recognition: "We didn't want to just sing about God anymore," he says.

Tyler, meanwhile, didn't know what he wanted.

"That's when I became disillusioned with religion," he says. "I just started exploring and questioning things. I moved out of my parents' house and started experimenting."

Musically, he tried writing on his own. Performing alone, too.

"It was just him," says Jacob Herron, a friend Tyler had called to ask for help and advice on how to move forward without the band. "He started playing constantly—anywhere that would have him. The Cavern. Coffee shops. The Liquid Lounge. Wherever we could get him to play."

But there was promise in Tyler's new material.

"It was just real," Herron says. It's a descriptor often used to describe Tyler's songs, which exist at the point where blues, Southern rock, classic rock, R&B and folk meet.

The church played a role in the new material Tyler was writing. But whereas Auckland's material was Christ-inspired, Tyler's new songs had a similar-but-different influence: gospel music.

"Those guys really believed what they were singing," Tyler says. "There's a difference between singing for entertainment and singing it because you think it's the absolute truth. I sing about what I'm feeling. There are songs about drugs. Songs about God. Songs about love. Songs about getting drunk. But if you were to break it down to the chords and the lyrics, you could still like the song if it's just acoustic."

When it came time to record his new songs, though, Herron and Tyler opted to return to the full-band sound; they called in the old Auckland crew and, with just one rehearsal and one performance as a four-piece, the group entered a studio. In five days, they recorded and added a Southern rock flavor to what would become Hot Trottin'.

"It's a great snapshot of where the band was as a project at that point," Herron says. "I think it's a really honest recording. It was all we needed. All I needed. The purpose of the album was to have something to hand out to people. And the one thing we did was promote the hell out of the band."

They handed out 3,000 copies of a three-song sampler disc they produced from those recording sessions. They plastered posters with Tyler's face on them all over town.

The album must've found its way into the right people's hands. In early 2007, the band was asked to appear on a bill at Grand Prairie's Nokia Theatre, opening for Heart. Says Herron, a firefighter paramedic who had now become the band's official manager: "That was huge for us at the time."

But, in the grand scheme of things, not so much. These things happen—local bands find their ways on bills with bigger, touring ones. They go down as career highlights, sure—for the kinds of bands whose big nights are opening for a once-big act touring 20 years past its prime.

 

Nothing came overnight. Well, not success.

"There were times where we would get off work at 4, I would borrow my dad's truck, we'd rent a U-Haul trailer, pick the guys up and drive eight-deep in the cab to Austin," Herron says. "We'd get there at 8, play a show and leave town at, like, 1 a.m. Guys would sleep in the bed of truck on the way back to Dallas and we'd get back in the next morning and they'd go off to work. We were playing everywhere we could, but that doesn't mean we were making any money."

That do-whatever attitude would prove an asset.

When tattoo artist Kat Von D, who was living in Dallas at the time, was set to move to California to start filming her television show L.A. Ink, her manager, who also worked at Hollywood Records, needed a few young able bodies to help load the moving van. She called a friend of a friend of a friend who called Herron and, sure enough, Tyler, Pinckard, Jay and Cain were volunteered for the job.

In exchange, the manager agreed to watch the band, now coined Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights, perform later that evening.

She liked what she saw—enough, at least, to follow through on her word and pass Hot Trottin' along to an A&R rep at her label. It was somewhat surprising for the band, though, when he actually came calling. Others soon did, too—representatives from Atlantic Records, Columbia Records, Capitol Records, Universal Records and American Recordings among them.

"We don't really know where that came from," Herron says with a shrug. Sending records off to people doesn't guarantee anything.

But chatter might.

"They all know what the others are doing," Tyler says. "They talk."

When Hollywood Records invited the band to Los Angeles to perform a showcase so its agents could get a feel for the band's live show, Herron and Tyler invited all of those labels out.

"It was great," Herron says with a laugh. And, yeah, it was kind of a big deal: "They all showed up and looked around and they had no idea that we were talking to all these labels. We had a lot going on! Or so it seemed at the time."

They talked. And talked. And talked. Tyler and Herron would fly to Nashville, Los Angeles, New York City. Lawyers got involved.

"It was just getting the right deal," Herron says. "We just weren't going to sign anything. We were like, 'Look. We're smarter than that.' It was just back and forth and back and forth."

Some of the labels, including Hollywood, eventually backed off. Atlantic didn't. And, after nine months of negotiations, papers were signed. Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights joined Atlantic's roster.

The band's already rigorous performance schedule, and the experience it had gained with it, was to thank: "I was just knocked out instantly by the live show," says Gregg Nadel, the band's A&R rep at Atlantic. "The live show is pretty undeniable. And JT is just an engaging frontman. I always look for bands that are doing something on their own and are getting things going locally."

Actually, that's Nadel's pedigree. He's the guy who developed O.A.R. from college-rock favorites to mainstream stars. His more recent success story is with the Zac Brown Band, an emerging star in the national country music scene that broke through this year with the radio hit "Chicken Fried." Thing is, that was sort of a happy accident. That band was supposed to follow the O.A.R. plan of impressing along the tour circuit to an eventual, inevitable breakthrough. "Chicken Fried" just sort of blew up in the process, speeding up the development.

Either of those paths, Nadel says, could be in store for Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights. But mainstream success, far as he's concerned, is inevitable.

"This is one of those bands you look for," he says. "We really want to build these guys up as headliners. We believe that, if you put these guys in front of people—any people—they're gonna make fans. "

At October's Austin City Limits Music Festival, the band proved just that: Booked to play during an otherwise folk-heavy timeslot, the band actually reaped the benefits of the torrential downpours that plagued much of the festival. A massive crowd, tired of the dark and dreary tones heard throughout Austin's Zilker Park and looking for something of a pick-me-up, slowly found its way before Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights' otherwise out-of-the-way stage for its late-afternoon performance. And the band delivered. It was a mixed bag of a crowd—rockers looking for something lively, folkies bored with the other offerings, Red Dirt fans familiar with the band because of early bills shared with Texas country acts, and a slew of others in between just looking to be entertained—but, by performance's end, the band had a whole new field of fans. The band's posturing and vigor gained traction; when the band's set came to an end, the crowd wanted more. In turn, Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights offered one of the weekend's few encore performances.

 

So maybe it's not surprising when Nadel candidly expresses his excitement about the band's future—completely devoid of the pause that label types like him so often employ when discussing bands and their prospects.

"I'm very confident," he says. "We're gonna get there with these guys. Real bands like this find their way."

What's interesting about the deal Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights signed isn't that the label's thrown a lot of money behind the band (it hasn't; Pardon Me was made for $20,000) but that the label just seems to dig the idea of the band as a whole and actually wants to support it.

It's hardly the old major label cliché: In preparing Pardon Me, the label introduced Tyler to various songwriters and producers, but never forced anything on him creatively. Tyler adamantly insists that this is the case—and there's evidence to back him up.

On certain songs on Pardon Me, Tyler shares songwriting credits with various members of his band. But his name is the only constant in the liner notes. In fact, only one name not from the band appears: Rich Robinson, guitarist and songwriter for The Black Crowes (including "She Talks To Angels"). Tyler and Robinson collaborated on one of the disc's most incendiary and catchy, albeit lyrically sophomoric, tracks, "Hot Sake." Robinson offered to produce the disc, too. Instead, the band recorded Pardon Me in 17 studio days spread out over a month spent in Nashville with producer Jay Joyce (John Hiatt, Patty Griffin, Cage the Elephant) with the goal of bringing its visceral onstage sound to tape. It was a reactionary move of sorts: The band was already sick of locals jokingly referring to it as Black Crowes Light.

"We don't want to be puppeted by a label," Tyler says.

For better or for worse, Tyler thinks about those things. A lot. He reads reviews—including a blog post that compared his band to the Black Crowes, which he checked on his phone as he was sitting next to a founding member of that band. He doesn't want to be compared to anyone else, although he admits that there are many borrowed elements in his songs. But they're classic elements, he says. He throws the word "timeless" around a lot.

"The goal," he says, "was to re-introduce a classic way of thinking. To make rock 'n' roll relevant again. To make a modern-sounding record that has the attitude of a classic record."

The recurring lyrical theme to Pardon Me is about finding one's inner rock 'n' roller. "I've gotta know/what's gonna move your soul?" he pleads in the opening title track. It's a noble aim, but one that recalls another outfit—one Tyler has toured with. If there exists one artist whose catalog boasts a higher percentage of songs about rock 'n' roll than Jonathan Tyler's, it's Kid Rock—yet another artist with whom Tyler's songs have been lumped.

"All those comparisons? If anything, it's a compliment," Pinckard says. "Whenever anyone's saying that you're comparable with all these other great bands, that's got to be a good thing."

But, backstage before the House of Blues gig, Pinckard, whose wailing guitar gives the band much of its feel, admits that he has a hard time classifying his band's genre.

"I have no idea what kind of music we're supposed to be," Pinckard admits backstage at the House of Blues show. "Your guess is as good as mine. Is it rock 'n' roll? Is it R&B? Blues? Southern rock? Whatever."

It's a fair question. Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights' songs have a classic feel, sure, but hardly one that seems to fit any specific radio format. It's not alternative rock. It's not country. It's not even alt-country.

But that's another thing Nadel and Atlantic like about the band's promise: "To me, the biggest records are the ones that don't fit to formats. This band appeals to all different ages and kinds of people."

"You really can't put a label on them as far as what they do," Herron agrees. "You can put influences on them, but you can't put a sound on them. I think they have huge crossover appeal."

When "Pardon Me," which the band performed for national television audiences for an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! that aired on April 8, gets its radio push from the label in June, that appeal will start to be determined.

 

After the band's Saturday House of Blues show, another Atlantic rep, Mike Snow, who runs radio promotions for the company through Texas and much of the South, expanded on the label's excitement.

"There's been a lot of internal talk about who gets to spearhead this project," he says while the band drinks and celebrates its show just a few seats over in the venue's Foundation Room. "People are really excited about this band. We think there are maybe four or five singles on this record."

Already, Austin's rock-formatted KLBJ 93.7 FM has picked up on "Pardon Me," playing the song in regular rotation. Come June, when the formal push for airplay comes, Snow hopes stations such as Dallas' KEGL 97.1 FM will follow that lead. Then alternative stations like KDGE 102.1 FM will fall in line. Then maybe pop stations. Who knows?

Given his O.A.R. background, Nadel doesn't mind waiting.

"It may take one year, three years, or five years," he says. "For me, that's the best approach for building an artist. We're not in a rush. The band's not in a rush."

Or are they? When asked, The Northern Lights, which now include backup singer Mo Brown (who joined the band shortly after Hot Trottin' was released and, fun fact, is a published novelist under the name of Camika Spencer) and new keyboard player E.J. Norris (whose first performance with the band came at the CD release show), show some glee.

"The exciting part, for me, is when you take the CD out and you look at it and there's that Atlantic stamp on there," says bass player Jay. "Led Zeppelin was on there. Ray Charles. That means a lot."

Pinckard, meanwhile, talks eagerly about the road that still lies ahead: "I want to get up to that next plateau," he says. "And just explore around a little bit, you know? See what's out there."

But with Tyler, you get the impression that he'd almost rather wait.

"Would I like this record?" he asks when pressed about his thoughts on his major label debut. "I mean, I have a pretty high standard of what I'd buy. But I would. Of course I would. I'm proud of what I do. But I don't think I've done my best work yet."

When talking about what the future holds, unlike his bandmates, Tyler doesn't seem as wide-eyed. He talks about the fact that some of his bandmates already want to move to Austin or Los Angeles, but he wants to stay in Dallas.

"The people in L.A.—I don't really get along with them," he says. "I just have high hopes for Dallas. I don't know why."

He talks about his favorite local bands. Name-drops a couple of them, even, like True Widow: He loves the drone in their psychedelic-based sound. He says he was trying to go for that a little bit when writing "Devil's Basement," a country-psych blend that also stands as the most alluring—and maybe out of place—song on Pardon Me. It's a direction he hopes to keep exploring sonically, probably on the band's next record. If only because maybe it isn't what people expect of him.

Because, for all his rock 'n' roll swagger, Tyler is staunchly averse to being considered a cliché. So much so that he refused the first four cuts he saw of the music video for "Pardon Me," which debuted last week on the band's website. There were too many poses, he says. Too many shots of him and his band mates coolly and dramatically taking drags from their cigarettes. He doesn't want to come off like every other rock band.

"None of the stuff on the radio resonates with me," he says almost defiantly. "It all just comes off as so plastic. And we're not going to be middle of the road. People are either gonna love us or hate us."

Well, maybe not hate.

"The big thing," Pinckard adds when asked his hopes for the project, "is that they have an opinion."

Back at the House of Blues, Tyler and his band, surrounded by their fans, seem to feel more comfortable about their place—even if, they admit, they aren't quite certain about what milestone they have supposedly achieved or where it is they're supposed to think they're now headed.

Maybe that's why the pre-show routine on this celebratory evening felt no different than any other.

"There's not like an exact plan to follow," Tyler says. "If you want to stand out, you just go out and try to do something different."

"It can go one of three ways," Jay says in the final moments before his band leaves the green room to take the stage. "One: It stays as is, and we keep making upward progress. Two: The album comes out and just completely flops. I mean, as good as we think we might be, who's to say that anyone else thinks we're great? The third way is that we're the next Kings of Leon. If I had my pick, of course I'd pick that."

 

If nothing else, the band can take solace in the fact that, for two of its drunken fans, it's already a better value than Dave Matthews Band.

"Listen," Tyler says. "I'm already proud of everything we've done. I'm proud of the record. What would have to happen for it to be a success? If we could recoup. If we can pay it back—that would be a success, at least from a business standpoint. In my mind, it'll be a success if we can go to 30 other cities and all those shows sell out. Then it'd be a success. And I think this record can do that for us. It definitely can.

"But if it doesn't, it's not like we're gonna get dropped. We didn't sign that kind of deal."


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