[Cover photo credit to Lisa Shaffer]
Jefferson Berry and the UAC released a new album during quarantine, Double Deadbolt Logic, from their home base of Philadelphia. Alongside devoting his life to music, Jefferson Berry is a Government and Economics teacher in the inner city in Philadelphia, and has continued crafting the band's own brand of storytelling through this time at home.
The band has been sticking together through this difficult time by learning new technological resources for creating demos and crafting videos to bring them together musically if not physically, with very inspiring results.
Jefferson Berry joins Tower's PULSE to talk about the songs on the new album, why festivals have been a big part of his life in music, the ways in which he and the UAC (Urban Acoustic Coalition) are "genre defiant" and even the part that Tower Records played in his earlier life out in California.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I’m glad you chose to release ‘Double Deadbolt Logic’ right now because despite all the challenges we are facing, I think that people need music in their lives.
Jefferson Berry: They do. It’s interesting as a singer/songwriter, because the songs that I wrote for this album and the songs that I’m writing for the next album now are very different, because it’s a different world. So the stories are different. The message has got to be something people can relate to. I think this album does that, but who could have seen what this would be like?
HMS: I think this pandemic has been such a dramatic shift that it does feel like a different world, and I’m not at all surprised if music is going to have to address that, and be different too. I did see a quote online from you where you talked about wanting to be both relevant and entertaining. What did you essentially mean by relevance?
JB: I think if you have this platform, you should be talking about stuff that relates the world around you. With the song “Locks and Guns”, that can be about the fear that people live with. Or it could be about the good love and the bad love, something that people relate to. Relevance is in the ear of the listener. The whole concept behind the Urban Acoustic Coalition really is that we’re telling stories about the city. That’s what our last three albums have in common. The relevance is to living in the city.
HMS: That’s interesting because the sounds and traditions that you build on are not necessarily associated with urban environments, but they do stay with communities regardless of settings.
JB: Right, sure. My whole life is kind of like this. I’m an inner-city Government and Economics high school teacher. I get these stories from a lot of different places. I’m working with an underclass group of kids and the challenges that some of them face are beyond comprehension.
HMS: I have a background in education and come from a family of teachers, so I definitely can appreciate the work you’re doing.
You mention stories and storytelling, associating stories with music. To what extent are the musical stories that you tell direct narratives or are they more about emotional arcs?
JB: I go both ways. I think that a song like “Ghost of California” is very personal. Back in the day, I was in corporate America, back in San Francisco, working for a Rock ‘n Roll radio station selling advertising, and my behavior was not always exemplary.
HMS: How shocking!
JB: It was the 1980s. It was crazy. But every time I would go back to California, I would pass scenes and places and recall what happened there. I’d ask, “How am I ever going to make that right?” The song talks about scenes from my life that I want to make amends for, but I really can’t. So that’s very personal.
Then, a song like “I Know What I Know” is about the way in which people are interacting on Facebook. What could be less personal than that?
HMS: [Laughs] I was going to ask you about that one. There’s a story there, it’s just a very familiar story.
Do you think that music traditions like Folk and Blues naturally lend themselves to storytelling, or if they do, more than other genres?
JB: I always did think that. Especially traditional Folk certainly does that, and traditional Blues really does that, but there’s been a real commercialization of both of those genres. Things are changing in that realm.
Sometimes when I’m writing songs, like on “Shattered Glass”, about stealing cars, I’m creating characters there. They are an invention, but where do I get the idea that you can strip a car by taking out the steering column? My students told me that. I had a student who was picked up for boosting cars. Some of the stories from my students are too sad to tell. It wouldn’t be what people wanted to hear, like about food insecurity.
HMS: Do you have to make decisions like that as a songwriter, thinking things might be too harsh?
JB: Well, actually, I’m writing a song like that right now called “Too Old To Matter” that I’m considering for the next record, that’s about people getting laid off because they are too old to keep up with technology. It’s a good song. Does anyone really want to hear that song? I’m not sure. Once we get into the studio, and the thing rocks, I may think it doesn’t matter, but in terms of the narrative?
HMS: I think the message is pretty interesting. Do the other band members ever weigh in on whether a story is one they think should be out there?
JB: Whatever story I want to tell, if it’s a good song, they are all about it. In this time, I’ve not seen these guys since March, but we’re about to put on a show on my porch for the neighbors. Keeping a band together in this time is hard.
HMS: Live performance is such a big part of a band’s identity, not to mention financial support.
JB: It’s also just fun. Everyone loves going into the studio, but the real energy is in front of a live audience. And in doing things nobody else is doing, which I think we are. The band has stuck with me through this time because they think we are, too.
HMS: How would you describe the difference in what you are doing as a band?
JB: We’re genre defiant. We’re not a Hard Rock kind of thing, but on the other hand, we’re really not a Folk thing. It’s acoustic, with mandolins and banjos, but it’s got a beat. It’s got a lot more Rock elements. The acoustic Rock Folk with out-of-town Jazz chords is not what everybody is doing. I had a reviewer once say that it sounded like the “Steely Dan of Folk music”.
HMS: [Laughs] Cool. Individually, those elements appeal to me, so I’m happy to hear people combining them. At the same time, going back in time, in some of those genres, elements are remarkably rigid and tend to stay in their lane.
JB: They absolutely are, which is certainly problematic.
HMS: Do you feel like you get a little shade cast your way for that, mixing things together?
JB: I probably do, but you really have to ignore that. If and when it hits big, it’s because nobody else is doing it. I don’t listen to radio, or very much other music at all, because I don’t want those influences.
HMS: I’ve heard plenty of people who take the same approach so that things don’t creep into their subconscious too much. You mentioned the power of live performance, specifically, have festivals been a big part of your development as a band? I know you have a song and a video about festivals.
JB: It’s a way of life in the summer. I’ve played the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Extreme Folk Festival. It’s playing music all night with friends, it’s great. It’s so liberating, getting out of the city, being under the stars while you’re doing it. But all that went away this summer. But with the song “At the Festival” with Bud Burroughs on mandolin, he and I met at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. He and I have been to 30 festivals together. To have him on that song playing mandolin and having all the pictures edited in for the video, it was really fun.
HMS: It sounds almost like a nomadic thing for summer, finding your people.
JB: It is certainly that. There are people who take the nomadic thing way more seriously than I do. But I raised my children there.
HMS: Has playing live ever directly influenced writing songs? Are you too busy to write at festivals?
JB: It does. It’s the music part of it, and I almost always write the music before the words. In the space of time when I’m playing a lot, I’ll come across riffs and arrangements that sound cool to me and I’ll make a note to try them out later.
HMS: That’s great. It seems like when you’re in an estuary of music you might pick up on things.
JB: I need to point out a difference between “festing” and “performing” though. Festing is when you’re playing a lot and doing your best, but when you’re performing with a band, with all the moving parts, it’s a lot more disciplined. At least it is in my band, and if you had to use a genre word for us, it would probably be Jam Band. You need a little bit of structure there. It sounds loose and ethereal, but everybody knows what’s going on.
HMS: So, to clarify those distinctions, do those happen in different locations, too, or are those just modes of performance?
JB: If I’m at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, at the campground, I’m festing. If I’m on the camp stage and they are paying me to put on a show, with a setlist, and arrangements, that’s performance. It sounds better when everybody knows what’s going on.
HMS: So, one is more informal, and the other is more like what we think of as Rock concerts, the main stage?
JB: Correct. I think for bookers, having that kind of professionalism is comforting for them when booking us.
Then there’s the third space, working on things alone and trying to figure out where things are going. There’s so much new tech that we’ve gotten to know in recent months. There’s this new
Online studio called SoundTrap, which the people at SoundCloud came up with. I will lay down a guitar and vocal track, and they have drum tracks you can put in, and then I hand it over to our bass player, and he will add that, and harmonica, Lap Steel guitar. We’ve actually come up with pretty good demos for our next album using this online thing.
Then there’s the technology of iMovie on the iPhone where I will shoot myself playing the guitar track, then shoot myself singing to a click track, then I turn it over to Bud [Burroughs] on mandolin, and Marky B! [Berkowitz] on harmonica. The drums are really hard to capture this way, but we’re going to be coming out with a version of “Punky’s Dilemma” by Paul Simon. We’ve managed to put together all these elements of us playing, socially separated, and put together a pretty good cover.
HMS: That’s wonderful. Those things are a fair amount of work! Many bands are taking weeks and weeks to create one video like this and it’s a commitment.
JB: It is! Gene Shay, who is the godfather of Folk music here in Philadelphia, and who had a radio show, died of COVID. And we wrote a song about him. We had that song out within about a week of his passing. We were shooting ourselves, playing a song we’ve never played together, and putting it out. But you’ve got to be able to make yourself look good and shoot yourself on your iPhone!
HMS: How did you get into these types of music? How far back does that go for you?
JB: I was raised in Southern California, and in 1968, they are playing Cream, The Beatles, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I picked up a guitar and realized, “You can get girls with this thing.” So I taught myself to play by listening to the Rock radio.
HMS: I have a huge respect for people who taught themselves to play by listening to the radio or recordings, without any other resources. A lot of really amazing musicians started that way.
JB: At a certain point, I got old enough to play out, then I played the LA club circuit a little bit.
HMS: What type of music were you playing?
JB: My solo show was an Elvis Costello solo show on the Venice boardwalk, where I’d get the horn-rimmed glasses and the Beatle boots. I was also point guy for a UFO, Hard Rock band, but it wasn’t a serious thing. So I decided to get into Rock ‘n Roll radio, and I was a pretty good writer, so I went out and wrote commercials for record stores, concert promoters, motorcycle dealers, and I made a living that way.
HMS: Did you have any overlap with Tower Records?
JB: I did. I was one of the people they went bankrupt on. I had product in there. Along the way, I made some advertising calls to them. The radio station I was associated with in San Francisco was “K2AK The Quake”, a Rock of the 80s station. But yeah, we made some money off of Tower Records.
HMS: Was it somewhere that you shopped?
JB: Oh my god, absolutely. Tower Records on the Sunset Strip? Heaven. One of my early bass players here in Philadelphia, the late Ron Ward, was a shipping clerk at Tower up in the Northeast. We were always getting goodies from him. When they went out of business was like losing a friend. Going into a shop like that, particularly with two stories, and all the crazy people there.
I remember going into Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, and putting down a copy of LA Woman by The Doors, and the guy looked at me and said, “Do your parent know you are doing this?”
HMS: [Laughs] That is a great story! Good one.
JB: That’s what would happen at record stores. They were all so knowledgeable. You didn’t get a job there back then unless you talk about Led Zeppelin at the same time you were talking about Miles Davis. You had to have a very broad view.
HMS: Yes! Thank you for saying that. That’s something we’ve talked about a lot at Tower and at PULSE! We need everything. We really do. Tower doesn’t do things by halves. It’s a tremendous legacy.