The barbed back-and-forth of Jonesies' "Keep Up"
The Madison pop outfit celebrate a new album with an April 15 show.
Madison band Jonesies play jangly, amiable-sounding guitar-pop, but with a catch. Their lyrics, sung by bassist Mary Dahlman Begley and guitarist/main songwriter Luis Perez, are terse and cutting, often portraying people in moments of self-pity or in the midst of spiteful arguments. Sometimes there's a sense that the band is deliberately screwing with the listener, or at least with the idea of songwriting, especially on "Peter," the opening track from their 2016 EP Meet The Jonesies, on which Begley sings lines like: "Take me out to a game / Wanna see the baseball players playing in a game of baseball."
Jonesies expand this approach in a few ways on their first-full-length, the recently released Keep Up. The initial trio of Perez (also of Exploration Team), Begley, and drummer Tessa Echeverria (who also plays with Begley in the punk trio Once A Month and co-owns Williamson Magnetic Recording Company) recruited Peter Briggs to play guitar and pedal steel, helping the band discover a country influence that wasn't in evidence on Meet The Jonesies. The songwriting opens up a bit too, with some songs taking the form of a caustic call-and response between Begley and Perez. On opening track "Immunity Idol," they play two people going to great lengths to play it cool that they're interested in each other, ending the chorus trading calls of "Not you! Not you!" On the chorus of "Simon," Begley interjects with a tuneful "shut up, shut up" as Perez sings the more earnest lines "And if it's how I really feel / If it's new, shouldn't I say?" But by the end of the song they're both singing "shut up"—the twist in a sort of indie-pop Punch and Judy show. The closing track "Blood Stone Shard" captures an all-too-common sort of interaction that goes awry when an entitled man doesn't get what he wants from a woman. Begley: "You must feel you've been put on a shelf." Perez: "I think you're a bitch." Begley: "I'm not sorry as I pass you on by." Perez: "Come on, give me a shot."
The album isn't all duets, though, and there's more to the songs than savage barbs. Begley wrote and sang "Draw Rocks," a shuffling country number about feeling restless and not quite knowing what to do about it: "All I've got is a heap of doubt / and a long list of towns / That I can't quite call home." Perez also shows a bit of vulnerability on "Log Cabin," a song about feeling rejected and lonely, though maybe rejected and lonely in a mildly self-mocking Smiths sort of way: "Call someone's phone number / No one picks up / That's the story of my life." Begley eventually joins in on the despair, as the two trade lines: "Why do I try? / It'd be easier not to."
Jonesies might not be a band for much longer, as Begley is planning to leave Madison for grad school this fall, but for now they've got an album-release show planned on April 15 at Williamson Magnetic, as well as some additional touring and at least one last Madison show after that. Begley is also hoping to put on a show of country covers sometime this summer. Ahead of the release show, Perez and Begley joined me to discuss what they wanted to do differently on Keep Up, and why Jonesies songs have nerdy titles.
Tone Madison: So much of the chemistry in these songs is from the two of you going back and forth. How did that develop in your songwriting?
Luis Perez: I think in general, when I started writing songs with Jonesies in mind, I wanted it to be a little more abrasive on an emotional level, and then I think when we found Mary to be our singer, she has a naturally bratty attitude to her vocals, so it played into my hand right away. I've always liked bands that have had two vocalists or back-and-forth or duet-type things, so it was definitely intentional to have that element in there.
Tone Madison: What bands are you thinking of when you say that?
Mary Begley: I know what you're going to say—Beat Happening.
Luis Perez: They usually have no duets.
Mary Begley: They have all kinds of duets! Their best songs are duets.
Luis Perez: I was going to say the song "Lazy Line Painter Jane" by Belle & Sebastian. [Both laugh] I've always loved that song. It's one of my favorite songs.
Mary Begley: I don't like Belle & Sebastian.
Luis Perez: But they have a guest vocalist on that one.
Mary Begley: One time Luis went to a Belle & Sebastian show and danced on stage. But I also think that when we first started out, he was writing more songs that were for one vocalist, either him or me. And since then, especially on the new record, there's more where we sing together and more where we trade off. Specifically the line I'm thinking of, the interplay between us, is "Blood Stone Shard." We did that all in one day. We got together and we learned it, and we played it together for an hour or whatever and then we recorded it right away, no vocals. Then we went back to the studio to do vocals and–did you have the idea for the call and response?
Luis Perez: I'd always had it, I just didn't know if it would formulate well.
Mary Begley: So I laid down my vocals and there's a little empty space at the end of the line where he started popping up and going, "I think you're so cool." The whole idea behind that song is he's a nice guy, being very fawning, and then as soon as I'm like, "Nah, not interested," he goes "I think you're a bitch." And we totally fought over that line, because I was like, "Don't call me a bitch! People are going to think that we actually don't like each other." So it was "brat" at first, and then we went back and changed it. I'm glad we changed it, but every time we play it now, I'm laughing my head off at [Luis]. I always look over and smile when he calls me a bitch onstage.
Tone Madison: I guess that's more true to those interactions, where some guy's being really persistent and then eventually turns out to be an asshole.
Mary Begley: Yeah, and then the next line is, "Come on, give me a shot." So it's the nice guy who thinks that women owe him something. This is something that Luis likes to read about on the Internet.
Luis Perez: There's a whole Reddit called "Nice Guys."
Mary Begley: And I've experienced it in real life many times.
Tone Madison: The album also has new versions of a couple songs from the Meet The Jonesies EP, "Log Cabin" and "Unreal Tournament." Why did you decide to revisit those?
Luis Perez: I think "Unreal Tournament," for example, we could have had a better recording of. And then "Log Cabin" was a song that I knew I wanted Peter, when he joined the band, to play some type of lead on. I think that was the song that sort of hooked Peter in a little bit.
Tone Madison: And why did you decide to add Peter to the band?
Luis Perez: We wanted to be more like ABBA.
Mary Begley: Both in relationships. Or Fleetwood Mac. I had always wanted to play with Peter. We went to school together and are in a relationship, and he had kind of stopped playing guitar. He'd said, "Oh, I'm not interested in guitar." I don't want to put words in his mouth, but he was kind of like, been there done that. But at the same time, he wanted to play in a band in Madison, so I was really trying to convince him for a long time. It did take a lot of convincing, but once we started playing together it really started meshing. While I'm really proud of the work we did before, we have a fuller range of sound with him. Especially with him playing pedal steel and adding extra stuff.
Tone Madison: Which gets to one of the surprises about this album—several songs get very much into a country sound. Especially "Draw Rocks," which Mary wrote.
Mary Begley: I'm really into country music.
Luis Perez: And I also really like country music.
Mary Begley: And so do Tessa and Peter.
Luis Perez: And then we're like, "Hey, Peter's actually good at his instrument. He can come up with something!" And then I was always trying to pressure Mary into writing a song.
Mary Begley: That was the first thing I'd written in two years, because before moving here I would only write punk songs for my old projects, and I felt I was kind of in a rut, and then I was also like, "OK, Luis is this great songwriter and I don't have to do anything, I can just stand at the front and sing." But getting more into country, because I became disinterested in punk and started to fall in love with this whole new thing, and started enjoying listening to music again, inspired me to try and write a song. I have a couple more that I'm working on. I was worried when I brought it to you guys that first off Luis would be like "What is this?" And that you'd say, "Oh, we're not a country band." So I feel really happy that we've been able to explore that in some more of our songs.
Luis Perez: I think that was always a little bit there. I think "Log Cabin" was already, you could imagine it being played in a certain way. Having Peter do his work on that leans it that way. I think "Blood Stone Shard" was also. I wrote that a while ago before I brought it up. I wrote it before Peter joined the band. I had the chord progression, at least.
Mary Begley: It's your four favorite chords. Isn't it? Didn't you say that?
Luis Perez: That was probably a different song. [Laughs.]
Mary Begley: The reason [the country influence] blends in seamlessly is that Luis writes songs that are a little bit cheesy, and I know we've talked about this before, where his lyrics are almost not even lyrics. They're fake lyrics. Sorry. You know what I mean.
Luis Perez: They're very purposeful lyrics!
Mary Begley: I know they're very purposeful, but it's the same thing with country music, where it's overtly cheesy, overtly nostalgic and simple, and just kind of the bare bones of the song, and you build up on top of that.
Tone Madison: It's also funny that you have a song called "Unreal Tournament." Did you name that after the game?
Luis Perez: I did name that after the game.
Tone Madison: I remember playing it in high school. It's a shitty first-person-shooter sort of game, right?
Luis Perez: Uh, no—amazing perennial classic. [All laugh.]
Mary Begley: And now that Peter's in the band and he is a video game guy too, you can get away with that shit. Because before I was like, "No way." Isn't "Vinculum Gate" another nerdy reference?
Luis Perez: Well, I try to pack as many—one thing is I don't want to name the songs after lyrics in the song, I decided with Jonesies. I thought it would be fun to do videogame-related things. So "Vinculum Gate" is a reference to this game killer7, which is an old GameCube game. "Blood Stone Shard" is a reference to the game Bloodborne. They're just kind of packed in there and Mary rolls her eyes—
Mary Begley: Yeah, I roll my eyes!
Luis Perez: And confirms my joy.
Mary Begley: We also have a few references to Survivor on this album, because that's when I get nerdy, is talking about Survivor. "Immunity Idol," the first song, is a key game element, and then "Draw Rocks" is when you can't make a decision [on Survivor], which is my life. When there's a tie at tribal council, you draw rocks, and if you get the white rock you're sent home. In retrospect that title totally fits. The other thing that I think is different about that song is that I always ask Luis, "What is this song about?" And he's like, "I don't write songs about anything. They're fake characters that I make up in fake scenarios." But "Draw Rocks" is actually a personal song about my own feeling of rootlessness and the fact that I'm leaving town and stuff, and my own indecision.
Tone Madison: What changed for you as instrumentalists on this album?
Mary Begley: I think it's a couple different things in playing and recording that are different. In recording, we try a lot to add texture in many ways. I think playing, I know that I personally have definitely found my strength as someone who plays the bass and sings. Before, I would either play the bass or I would sing. Now I can definitely do both and I know that I can do them at least passably well.
Luis Perez: I think for me it was trying to lean into certain things. For example, we use acoustic guitar on a couple tracks. I was able to do a little more picky-ness-type things on this. In Exploration Team and Automatically Yours, I do much more complicated guitar lines, where I kind of purposely avoided doing that in Jonesies for a while. But with the addition of Peter it was like, "Well, there's room for that now."
Mary Begley: Why'd you avoid it before? Now I'm asking the questions.
Luis Perez: I think I avoided it because I wanted the distinctness of it being a little bit more like that straightforward DIY indie pop, the "anybody can pick up a guitar" type of music, in the beginning.