Longform

Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights Readies Its Major Label Debut

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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.

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman

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