Monday, January 7, 2008

Interview: Jessica Gonyea of OFFICE

On Wednesday night, local band OFFICE (yes, all caps) will be playing at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater presented by Chicago Public Radio. More than just a concert, OFFICE is going to treat the audience to a visual and audio history of their band and even engage in a Q&A session. Tickets are still available (and only $15, $10 for CPR members) so pick some up if you haven't already. To find out more about this rather intriguing evening, we caught up with keyboardist Jessica Gonyea on the phone. She was very gracious to speak to us, especially considering the interview took place a good three hours before she usually begins speaking to people.

nql: Hey Jessica, how are you doing?

Jessica Gonyea: I’m doing great. I hope this isn’t too early for you?

nql: No, not at all. Too early for you?

JG: No, but I rarely speak to human beings this early in the morning.

nql: (laughs) Excellent. I wanted to start off by asking you about your show tomorrow at Victory Gardens. I know there are going to be a few different sets and I was curious how it came about.

JG: Sure, well Tony Sarabia from Chicago Public Radio came to us and he had a pretty unique idea but he wanted to leave it mostly up to us…so what we’re going to do without giving too much away, we’re basically going to take the audience on a visual history of the band. Not sure if you know this but the band actually started out as an art project. So we’re going to show some early samples of the art. And then move to Scott (Masson) and show how he sort of started the band by himself with just his guitar and drum machine. We’re going to show some of our later material and the way we used to present things on stage which was in full 9 to 5 working gear. And we’re going to move into a stripped down acoustic set with also some Q&A. We’re also going to play a few brand new songs from the band that we haven’t even recorded demos for yet.

nql: Can you explain at all how the band segued from an art project into making music?

JG: Yeah. Basically it was when Scott was in art school and he conceived this idea of an art project. This idea kind of stuck in his head of this whole “office” theme. You know how the name of the band came about?

nql: No, in fact I was going to ask you about that.

JG: Well, when Scott was in London for school he saw a sign for Office Shoes which is a shoe store chain over there and the term “office” kind of stuck with him. And he also had a professor tell him, you know, never work on your own art at home, you have to get out of your house and treat your studio like an office. You have to treat it like a job. And you have to treat your art like your job or you’re not going to take it seriously. And that kind of resonated with him. And when he got home he started thinking about everything musically and began writing lyrics and that’s sort of how it evolved from art into a musical project.

nql: I was looking at the weather for Wednesday and I think it’s going to be around 60 degrees. Any thought of moving the concert outside?

JG: (laughs) I don’t know. I think it’s supposed to storm but it is kind of freakishly unseasonably warm. All I can think about is the weather channel when they show these terrifying scenarios of all these horrible climate things happening to our planet, that’s the first thing I thought of when I walked outside today.

nql: I think it could be billed as sort of this legendary concert: “Chicago band plays in January…outside.”

JG: Yeah, yeah that could be pretty hysterical, I’ll bring it up with the others.

nql: I was out of town on the 21st of December but your band played at the Metro with a great lineup. How did that go?

JG: It was really cool. The Metro came to us for a show and they wanted a local act show and they basically let us pick the bill. So we picked out what we thought was a pretty good variety of up and coming Chicago bands as well as our friends. So you had these great bands like Mannequin Men, and the Narrator. And then the 1900s are very folksy with some 60s pop so we thought it was a very good mix of where Chicago is at musically right now.

nql: Was it a pretty good show?

JG: It was awesome. I don’t think it quite sold out but it was just filled with people who were really excited. That’s how our last holiday show was, too. People were just in a very celebratory mood and there was just something in the air. Same thing with our holiday show at the Double Door last year, I’m not sure if you were at that one, but that was great as well. And Scott came out…well first Thax (Douglas) came out, you know Thax, right? Well, Thax came out and read a poem that he had written for the show. Then Scott came out in this really deranged Santa/Angel combo and as it gradually got warmer on stage he began just shedding angel wings and the Santa robe. It was pretty hilarious.

nql: I am really upset that I missed that (laughs).

JG: We went back to our practice space a couple of days ago to start prepping for shows and there was this Santa beard with lipstick all over it and it just looked so wrong just hanging up on the wall.

nql: I somehow missed it when Thax returned to Chicago but I have been seeing him around a lot lately. Any idea when that happened?

JG: I really don’t know, I feel like it happened last summer maybe.

nql: Okay, so it’s been awhile.

JG: Yeah, all of a sudden I just remember being out and I started seeing him at shows. Not even shows we were playing. But I feel like I just started recently seeing him everywhere, too. You know, Thax is a pretty wondering spirit (laughs).

nql: You talked about your band name earlier. Googling your band is not the easiest thing to do, have you ever discussed this with the other members?

JG: Oh yeah, we’ve discussed it. It has kind of been a joke with us because it really is just the most obscure name. And everyone always asks if it’s about the TV show, which for the record, Scott’s band was around before the British version of "The Office" came about if anyone cares.

nql: (laughs) I will make a special note of that.

JG: But yeah, we put little tags for searching us on our website anyway and that helps a little bit but it’s best if you know the band members’ names. But it is so obscure. I remember when we were starting to get just a little bit of press and I was telling people just to Google us. And I didn’t realize until I tried to Google the band how hard it was. And now, everyone in my family, from my grandma on down, has figured out how to find our band so I kind of have to behave.

nql: I know Scott wrote most of the songs on A Night at the Ritz and the band started off as just him. But since more members have been added, has the writing process become more democratic?

JG: It’s really cool actually. When I initially joined the band, they were still at the stage where Scott would bring in a demo that he had done and everyone would learn their parts. And now what happens is he brings in a sort of stripped down acoustic version of a song or an idea and we then kind of build it from there. So we all sort of write the songs together—the drum stuff, and the keyboard parts, all of it. Everything happens from the practice stage instead of Scott just bring in a demo. And there is definitely still an “Office” sound. There is just something very familiar about Scott’s songwriting. For instance, once I heard a demo that was his but I had no idea at the time and I remember thinking it sounded like Scott and it was. So he definitely has a recognizable style to his songwriting. But we are moving forward with our sound, it’s not going to be quite as new wave-y, I guess. Are you going to come to the show on Wednesday?

nql: Yeah.

JG: Okay, the last part of the set is going to be all brand new stuff and Tom (Smith), the lead guitarist, actually wrote a couple of the songs.

nql: Great. A Night at the Ritz came out in September and has been pretty successful, what would you say are the biggest changes in the band since then?

JG: Well, when I first joined, the band was playing a lot around Chicago and then one day I just sort of woke up and realized the band was much more than a full time job. If we’re not on tour we’re preparing for shows or writing new material. It kind of kicked everyone in the pants a little bit. And although we still wanted to play as many shows as we could, we realized we can’t keep playing the same old songs without writing new material. I think the success of the release was pretty good for the band, and it’s been a creative driving force as well. But if you’re asking if everyone still gets along, the answer is yes (laughs). I think we all know each other a lot better now. It’s really funny, sometimes we like to joke on tour that we are glorified movers because we just haul things in and out of cities and drive clear across the country and back and are constantly loading things in and out of a van. And at times it’s just like a really great road trip with friends.

nql: Obviously, you all play Chicago a ton, where else have you been lately?

JG: We toured across the entire country and Canada. We went out through the upper west coast, then into Canada and through Vancouver, back down through the Midwest, and then back up to Canada on the other side and then back down the east coast and to the south. And then the last tour was just to the west coast and back.

nql: Any cities stick out?

JG: Yeah, you know, the biggest surprise on the tour was Birmingham, Alabama. I had the best time there. The people were wonderful and the venue was really cool. It was called the Bottletree Café. And it was kind of a combination between Earwax (Café) and maybe the Hideout. It was just the coolest place. We were on tour with Earlimart, and again, just had a great time in Birmingham.

nql: Working with James Iha, did he give you any advice on the Chicago scene?

JG: He didn’t really give us any Chicago-centric ideas. James is a funny guy because he’s very supportive and he’s very serious about our careers but I feel like we all ended up getting along so well that not much mentoring was needed. He was very amazed that we got along so well and I remember him telling us how important it was that we didn’t lose that. That was definitely his biggest piece of advice. He’s been very good about coming to our Chicago shows when he’s in town and coming to our New York shows when we are there. And he helped us out on the recording the Ritz. We recorded part of it at his studio in New York which was really bizarre. I remember Scott one time making mention of Yoko Ono being there so James definitely runs around in some pretty interesting circles.

nql: Your live shows at the very least are always a lot of fun. Do you feel like that’s sort of a lost art with a lot of bands right now? More often than not, I feel like I go to a lot of shows and everyone is just sort of standing around very sleepy.

JG: When we first started, and we were dressing up in this 9-5 theme and had the dancing secretaries, that was a direct reaction to basically what you described because what we were doing was just really over the top. And it was kind of something that we did just for a sort of joke for ourselves. We would just throw these crazy dance parties on stage and eventually our shows changed from a lot of people with their arms crossed to people dancing. And it became a lot more fun when the audience was getting it. So eventually we began ditching the suits. It’s not just Chicago either, I feel the same way about other cities, too…there are definitely worse cities (laughs). We’ve played in front of packed houses and we’ve played for 15 people, some of whom would be members of the band we were playing with. And something we always end up doing when there isn’t a huge crowd is we begin to play for just each other. It’s so much fun and good practice. We’ll be in a room full of five people and Tom will just sort of look at me and next thing I know he’s standing on top of some monitor playing just a ridiculous guitar solo. So there will be four to five people in the crowd but it’s kind of for us, too.

nql: So when there’s less people there you kind of feel like you have more liberty to just be ridiculous?

JG: I wouldn’t quite say that, we just kind of have to feed off each other more—which then I guess does inevitably turn to the more ridiculous side. But there’s nothing like a packed house. That’s just the best.

nql: I’ve heard some say you need to play for no one to appreciate playing for a packed house, but how hard is that? Because I don’t think someone from my vantage point can really appreciate or understand what it’s like to be playing in a room that is essentially empty. So when you’re playing for a small crowd, don’t you still sort of have this responsibility to those that are there that they don’t leave disappointed?

JG: It is like that. Sometimes it can almost be awkward when you can see every face in the crowd and you can see that maybe one girl is checking her text messages (laughs). And that’s when you have to play for each other. Because you still want to put on a great show but it’s easy to get distracted by the crowd when there are less people there. So that’s when you really play for each other and hope those few walk away and tell their friends what a great show they saw and maybe bring them back next time.

nql: Anyone in particular that you, or the band as whole, are listening to right now?

JG: Right now there is this band called MGMT. It’s pronounced Management but is abbreviated. Have you heard of them?

nql: Umm, I don’t think so.

JG: And it’s not that I’m listening to them because their name is similar to ours.

nql: (laughs) I was going to ask you about that.

JG: But no, they are just amazing. I’m trying to think what that album is called. They are signed to Columbia so they’re on a major label. Hold on a sec......It’s called Oracular Spectacular. Their album has a really classic feel to it, almost like a Stones' feel. And they’re this major label band and I hadn’t even heard of them until about a couple weeks ago which is funny. But get their album and put it on in the background. I don’t know, I feel that is the best way to listen to music. It really is amazing.

nql: I will check that out.

JG: You should. It’s shockingly good.

nql: Shockingly good? Wow.

JG: Yeah. When in the van we listen to a lot of the classics. I feel like we’re around so much new music, that it’s nice sometimes to play something that everyone knows.

nql: The classics never get old when around a group of people.

JG: Right. We love something that we can all sing along to, like a good John Lennon song. On the next tour Tom and I decided we were going to listen to “The Odyssey” the entire way through.

nql: You’re not originally from Chicago are you?

JG: Scott and I are both originally from Michigan. But I have lived here for about five or six years which is long enough to feel like you’re home. Everyone else in the band is from Chicago.

nql: I’ve only lived in Chicago for about three years but after living here for just a year I felt very welcomed and very at home.

JG: Yeah, I agree. And after living here three or four years I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. This city is just fantastic.

nql: Absolutely. Well, I am going to wrap this up. Thank you so much for your time, I am going to let you get back to not talking to anyone. At what time of the day does that usually end, by the way?

JG: I think Erica (Corniel) usually calls me around noon or one almost every day and just sort of rambles so usually around that time.

nql: So you’re essentially a morning person because you’re up early but you’re not talking to anyone. I find that interesting.

JG: Well, it’s mostly because no one else is up (laughs).

(From L-R) Erica Corniel, Scott Masson, Alissa Hacker, Tom Smith, and Jessica Gonyea


Alex said...

Quick follow-up....the band MGMT that she brought up was on Letterman the other night and PM had the video and true to her word, I thought the song/performance was shockingly good. If this is reflective of the entire album I would say it's definitely worth checking out. Here's the video courtesy of Pitchfork:

Alex said...

Okay dammit, that link didn't work....just go to Pitchfork's homepage and you can find the link on the right under their "Forkcast" section.

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