When it comes to long trips, Jehova Waitresses
have been hung up in a heckuva lot of traffic on the musical turnpike to deliver Route 5
, their first album in over two decades which is available now on CDBaby
and all digital platforms.
They will celebrate the release with a reunion show on Sunday at Brother’s Lounge
“It, the album art and the songs all refer to the journey we’ve been on, the one we’re on now and this direction we’re currently taking with the five of us,” singer-guitarist Linda Roy explains in the liner notes for the new album (which features a note from this writer tucked in with the album credits).
“Mercy Marie,” the first single, is one that’s already been getting some notice — the video
for the track recently snagged three nominations for the forthcoming 2017 Austin Revolution Film Festival, including the Music Video and LGBTQ Film categories.
Songs from the band have often mixed both common themes and social commentary and as Roy shares, it’s something that came naturally in their songwriting process.
“We always kind of came from a place of introspection. Kevin [Roy, vocals/guitar], his dad has always said to him, 'You know, you’re such a philosopher. You’re so into philosophy.' I’m an overthinker, definitely. While I do think about romance and all of that, you know, I think Kevin and I got that out of the way pretty quickly,” she laughs, alluding to the relationship that developed quickly between the pair, who eventually married. “We took care of that on the side. But yeah, that’s always been my style of writing, putting my thoughts down, you know, what am I dealing with in life — and getting it out that way. Or observations about the social conditions, editorializing things to a certain extent.”
Fans will have a chance to hear a smattering of material from the new album, as well as plenty of old favorites during Sunday’s performance, their first show in the area since a 2009 reunion date at the Grog Shop. The Roys have been living in the New Jersey area since the mid-’90s and after a few attempts over the years, were finally able to reassemble the band — featuring the return of songwriter/bassist/vocalist Alan Grandy to the lineup, plus violinist Janice Fields-Pohl and drummer Jeff Harmon (who has been a consistent presence in every variation of the group) — to record the new album.
We spoke with Roy recently to discuss the new album as well as the group’s success here in the Cleveland music scene during the '90s.
Let’s talk first about the beginnings of this group. As I understand it, you put an ad in Scene in 1989, when you began working on putting a band together. Can you recall what you advertised that you were looking for?
Basically, I was saying, “I just got back from New York and I’m looking to put together a band in the style of [a] R.E.M., John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Eagles sort of thing.” Kevin had just moved to Cleveland from New Jersey and was thinking about getting his architecture license in Ohio. He’d gotten a job and an apartment and he was perusing Scene
and he saw my ad and called me up. I kind of got the two for one, you know, the classifieds, and the personals, eventually.
What are your early memories of Kevin and how did the collaboration really get going?
My earliest memory was when he showed up for the audition and he was carrying his Gretsch. It was a Country Club. He had that really cool guitar and he was wearing a Speed Racer T-shirt, a pair of Ray Bans. I thought, “This guy looks cool.” We worked on some stuff and he played me some songs and I said, “Do you want to be in the band?” He said, “I don’t know, what do you want?” He was already kind of collaborating, even with that decision. He would play me bits of songs that he had, I played him bits of songs that I had or we’d play each other entire songs. Sometimes we’d find bits and pieces of each other’s songs that fit well with an already fleshed out idea and we’d kind of put our songs together that way.
How quickly does the romantic element come in? Did either of you see that as something that might complicate things with the band?
Well, the funny thing is that I had just been in a band in the city and I was kind of dating the lead guitarist and that ended badly. I had made up my mind that I was not going to date anybody that I was in a band with. None of the Fleetwood Mac stuff, you know? Really, I hadn’t thought about it at all when Kevin walked in the door. I thought, “Well, this is a cool guy.” I was all business and so was he. But I needed an apartment, because I was living with my mom at the time. We were sitting up on the roof and actually, the line from “Mercy Marie,” about being up on the roof, always reminds me of the times we spent sitting up on his roof at his apartment, which was a two story house in Cleveland. I was just like, “You know, I need a place to live.” And he said, “Hey, you can rent out my second room.”
About two weeks later, I was not in that second room anymore! But you know, as far as complicating things? Yeah, we kept it a secret from the rest of the band. Because they were kind of clear about [that], “We don’t want to be in a mom and pop band,” you know? None of that! They didn’t want drama. And we didn’t want anybody to feel weird or uncomfortable, so we just kind of kept it a secret. When we would go to Kevin’s apartment to rehearse, Kristine Harris, our violinist at the time, and I, would go there to work on songs. She would leave to go home and she’d say, “Well, are you coming?” and I’d be like, “No, we’re going to work on some songs.” Eventually they found us out and all was good. Because by then, things were going pretty well with the band?
How did the rest of the lineup come together?
I think Jeff was the first one that I met, even before Kevin. They all answered the ad in the paper. Actually, everybody but our bass player. Kristine, who at the time, was Kristine Kochilla, she answered the ad and I decided, “Yeah, you know, violin, that would be great! It’s perfect!” She found us our bass player, Phil Budzinski, who prefered at the time to be known as Phil Neel. And then Jeff, you know, I met with him and he was the first member, actually, that was in the band. The first one I chose. It all just kind of came together pretty quickly. We all got along pretty well.
Where did Alan Grandy come into the picture?
Boy, we went through a lot of bass players. We went through bass players like Spinal Tap went through drummers, only without the green puff of smoke. The first one was this guy named Larry and then there was Phil and then Bill Stone and then we found ourselves in need of another bass player. We had heard a lot of Alan’s songs and really liked them, from all of the compilations. We knew about [his band] the Terrible Parade and we were at the Phantasy Nite Club one night. He came walking in wearing this bad ass white leather biker jacket. He had the long hair and everything and we were just talking to him about liking his songs and songwriting and his singing.
We were like, “Hey, you don’t play bass, do you?” He says, “Yeah!” So we asked him to be in the band. We really liked his songwriting and what he could bring to the band as far as that concerned and we just thought that would be an interesting dynamic to have three songwriters. At least speaking for myself, I’ve always been influenced by bands like the Eagles and of course, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Fleetwood Mac, that all have a number of songwriters that bring their own style to the mix, but also work well together to kind of bring something else to each other.
What’s the story behind the band name?
In high school, I was in a restaurant, a Denny’s or something, with some friends. The waitress just kept coming by all of the time and was really attentive. Which is good, but sometimes, it gets a little annoying. It just kind of reminded me of the Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to your door all of the time. I really like to make puns, that’s kind of my thing, and I just said, “Wow, it’s a Jehovah Waitress.” I thought, “That’s a good band name.” I still do that. I’m still like, “That’s a good band name!” I’ve got this list on my phone of good band names I’m going to form bands for some day. So yeah, that’s where that came from. I decided to take the “h” off and just make it its own thing, so it wasn’t literally “Jehovah.” It was just a kind of play on words, kind of a fun thing.
At one point, it was named as the best band name by Entertainment Weekly, right?
It was 1994, I think. Best Band Name! I’m still hanging onto that and I’m going to tell my grandchildren that! “We were the best band name!” “Quiet, Grandma! Go listen to your Tom Petty records.”
When Kevin sent me the album, he said, “I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the record. It’s another one that’s all over the place. A typical Jehova Waitresses record.” That to me kind of indicates that you guys are aware of your eclectic nature and the band has always kind of embraced that.
Yeah, we were talking about it the other day. I mean, in terms of everything, with the video. You know, we’re not your typical good looking MTV band. We did a kind of provocative video and we’re just going to do our own thing and just hope that people dig it, but we’re not going to change what our natural instincts are. We just kind of make the music that comes to us naturally and we make our vision kind of happen. And I kind of feel like, at least speaking for myself, that this album is finally the album I’ve wanted to make all along. The instrumentation, the arrangements, the types of songs. It’s all what I’ve been wanting to do. For me, it’s the epitome of what I’ve wanted this band to be, so I’m pretty happy with it.
What do you think the key was to finally finding that?
Well, it’s funny, it was really organic. We’ve had a lot of false starts. We’ve really tried to get the band together over the years since we moved to New Jersey. It just seemed like the time was right. Everyone was available. Kevin was coming off of the Grumpy Old Punks thing he’d mixed at this studio, Lakehouse, in Asbury. He took me there and I was like, “Man, I would love to record here.” We thought, “Maybe this is a good time?” We contacted Jeff and he was all in — he always is. It was at a point where Alan was available and he had some really cool stuff that he’d been working on. Because we had been working on some kind of country-tinged Americana kind of stuff. Janice was available and we just booked some time at Lakehouse and they came and it just worked out. I think we were all in the same place musically and just all available at the same time and it just worked out really great and really organically, which is how it should.
What sort of goals did the band have back in the day? I was thinking about “Red Sunsets (Since You’ve Been Gone),” which got a lot of local airplay here in commercial radio in the mid-’90s. It was to me, the sound of a band getting somewhere and evolving into something that was really impressive. To me, at the time, I could really hear all of the hard work that the band had done. It had paid off. But an alternate view that I thought of today, it has a definite polish to it — was that the sound of the band really, really trying to grab that brass ring of success.
Yeah, bingo! You nailed it. At that point, we had a manager and he was kind of coming back to us, saying, this is what the atmosphere is right now, the climate of the music scene. We were still dealing with a lot of pushback from the industry about, like, it needs to be one singer. They liked the idea of a female singer. The violin, just kind of because we had been through a couple of violin players and we were having trouble finding another one, that’s why that changed. But then we had a bass player, Paul Lewis, who is going to do a few tunes with us at the show on [Aug.] 6, who was a different style [of player], because his first instrument and only instrument is the bass. So he’s like a busier bass player. I’ve always had a lot of pop sensibilities, writing a lot of pop songs.
So I wouldn’t say, we didn’t ever want to pander, but another evolution of our sound was just that we kind of started to write more pop songs and kind of harder rock, grungy kind of stuff. That’s kind of where that ended up. And while I really liked those songs, again, it’s not really where my heart is. The stuff we’re doing now is back to exactly what I’ve always really wanted to do. I like doing pop songs, but at the time, it did kind of feel like, this isn’t the lineup. The lineup now that we have is the lineup that we’ve always looked at as the ultimate for our band, what we were really meant to do. It did kind of feel to us too, like, this is kind of our last grasp at the brass ring. We’re trying to do what we feel we want to do, but also in a way that we feel might be a little more marketable.
In that era, was that the first significant radio airplay that you guys had gotten? How did that happen?
We had gotten airplay on college radio, but as far as commercial radio, yeah, that was the first time. We had been on the End on the Inner Sanctum and I think it all just kind of came about that way. We had that song and we decided that would be a good single. We sent it and just asked them, “Would you put this on rotation?” They were wonderful and did it. It was fabulous. That really opened things up for us. In fact, I think that was one of the things that really helped us with the Ardent deal. I think that the way that song worked out and the fact that we were getting airplay with it, really helped cement that deal. So we really appreciate that big time.
It was an interesting moment at the time, because you know, you didn’t necessarily hear...everything that you were hearing locally didn’t sound professional necessarily, just because of the fact that not everybody had a studio in their house. Nobody was recording to a computer. You often had to go somewhere to really get that major label sound.
The thing too was at that time, you know, we were getting further with our career and getting closer. We had actually gotten a deal with Ardent Records. We went to Ardent Studios and we had a producer. It was the first time that somebody sat down with us and guided us and said, “This is where I see your sound going” and “This is what I see your look being.” And of course, it was all collaborative. They weren’t Svengali-ing us or anything. But they were coaching us and consulting with us, giving us a little bit more feedback about what they saw us as and what we could be. That was really great. We went in there and recorded a whole set of songs that you referred to before. It was just a great studio and we really took our time with the songs and we felt like that was the most polished, professional material we had come up with.
Was any of that material ever released?
The long and sad story of that in a nutshell is that we got signed by Ardent. We were going to do one of the first enhanced CDs. They assigned a whole team to us and they were all excited about it. We were set to go on a tour. We were sitting there picking out all of the stuff on our contract rider and then they were bought out by a Christian label and the whole thing fell through. We always joked that we had the right name for that kind of setup. Then they fired Paul, who was our A&R guy also. You know how that works when your A&R guy, your cheerleader goes, things start to fall apart. So yeah, that was going to be an album, but the tour and the album, everything fell apart. That was about the time that we moved to New Jersey, because we basically had to.
At that point, we were planning on going on tour and we got kicked out of our apartment. We put all of our stuff in storage, we were living out of one big duffel bag, because we thought, “We’re going on tour pretty soon!” So when that fell apart, we started living in our van and people’s floors. So we had to move to Jersey, because Kevin is an architect and he was getting some work here in Jersey, because he has connections here. He would fly back and forth and we just realized, we’re going to have to go there and make a living. But we always joked that we went on a break, kind of like on Friends
, you know? We never really quit, never really broke up — we realized the plan was always to come back together again and pick up where we left off. It just took a really freakin’ long time! And at that point too, we always joked, you know, someday, it’s going to come around to this kind of music. We just didn’t think it would take almost 30 years. But here we are!
“Mercy Marie” is one of the songs that you guys brought out initially around the time of the last reunion show in 2009. Was it around before that? What’s the history of that song?
Kevin wrote that around that time and we kept trying to record it, but we were never happy with the way we were recording it. Same with the song “Mistake.” We recorded it a number of times, but we couldn’t get it in the pocket. We couldn’t really get a groove on that thing. So after a number of tries, I think we finally got it this time, with both songs.
“She Don’t Care About Time” is one of Alan’s songs. I love that one.
He had that one and he had been working on a batch of country-tinged songs and we were like, “Oh, we love that one. We want to do that one.” And “Solstice Song” is another song of his that we just loved that he did for a Sputnik record. We were like, “Could we do that too? Can we record it?” He was like, “Yeah, sure!” Because I was like, “I want to sing on that and I want to play my Rick on that.” We love that song. Both of his songs, the lyrics are just so clever and so great. Listening to them, but also then sitting down and writing out the lyrics for the lyric booklet, I was just like, “Man!” You know, that line he does, “It’s crystalline/ She don’t care about time.” It’s just so great.
Listening to this album as a whole, it doesn’t seem like a sequence of songs that you would have had to agonize too much about. The material comes together really well.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, I think we kind of like to mix it up with rockers and then also some contemplative quiet things and then wind up with a little humor.” It just kind of all naturally works together. Also, if you take into consideration that there’s three of us, we just really thought that Alan’s songs worked so perfectly, bringing that country song and the pop song, it just all worked together well.