Stacy Jones spent the first 15 years of his rock life, much of it in Boston, grinding out power-pop in the years before emo made it a staple of Top 40 radio. He got his start as the drummer in Letters to Cleo, left that band to join grunge-era stars Veruca Salt, then pulled a Dave Grohl and traded his kit for a guitar as the frontman of his own band, AMERICAN HI-FI, scoring a debut hit with their pop-metal homage “Flavor of the Weak.” For the past three years he’s been perhaps the most influential power-pop drummer in the world: as the musical director for Miley Cyrus, he’s subtly shaped the sound of her live band by hiring a succession of former bandmates, including Hi-Fi guitarist Jamie Arentzen and, for a time, Letters to Cleo frontwoman Kay Hanley. The Miley gig has provided ancillary benefits to fans of Jones’ earlier bands, as well: during the “Best of Both Worlds” tour Stacy talked Kay into playing some one-off reunion gigs with Letters to Cleo, and next week Stacy and Jamie will use an off-day from Miley’s current tour (which hits the Garden on November 9 and 10) to stage a one-off American Hi-Fi show in their old stomping grounds at the Middle East Upstairs. They’ll be playing songs from their first new album in four years, Fight the Frequency, which they put the finishing touches on just last week. Jones has also given Phoenix readers an exclusive first-listen to the title track, which you can download below. American Hi-Fi play the Middle East on Wednesday, November 11. And tune into 101.7 WFNX -- or listen live at WFNX.com -- at 8:40 am on November 10 to hear Stacy Jones on the Sandbox.
DOWNLOAD: American Hi-Fi, "Fight the Frequency" (mp3)
We spoke to Stacy Jones via cell phone from Washington, DC, where “half of Congress” had turned out to see Miley that night. You and American Hi-Fi guitarist Jamie Arentzen are on tour with Miley. And (bassist) Drew Parsons is in Boston. How are you guys rehearsing for this show?Well, Jamie’s been doing this with me since day one. And our original drummer, Brian Nolan, joined back up with us, which is awesome. So about three weeks ago, the bass player in Miley’s band slipped in San Antonio and broke his wrist. He couldn’t play, he had to get a cast and the whole thing. So I called Drew from Hi-Fi, and I’m like, ‘Hey, what are you doing right now?’ And he’s like, ‘Just watching the game with my wife.’ So I’m like, ‘You busy tonight?’ He’s like, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re getting on a plane.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ So I brought Drew out and he learned the entire show – which, by the way, we spent two months rehearsing this show before we went on the road – and Drew learned Miley’s whole show in 48 hours, stepped on stage in New Orleans, and played with us. And killed it. So wait: now it’s three-quarters of American Hi-Fi backing Miley Cyrus?Yep. Pretty funny. When Sean gets his cast off he’ll come back. But for now it’s a lot of Hi-Fi up there. My drum tech has been learning Hi-Fi songs, and we’re gonna jam on the soundcheck tomorrow. When we emailed the other day, you were playing the exclusive Congressional Country Club course with Mike “Fluff” Cowan. How the hell did that happen?Fluff, obviously, is a legendary caddy. We met him a couple of years ago in the Bahamas. We did a Miley gig down there. He’s got a young daughter, and we met them at the pool at the hotel, so they came to the Bahamas show. So Jamie and I actually played golf with him in the Bahamas. He’s a big music fan. And he said, Hey, next time you’re in DC, call me, I’ll take you out to Congressional. So we took him up on it. Not only did we play the course, but we played it with him, so he’s telling us what clubs to hit, where to aim, reading the putts for us. I made so many putts yesterday that there’s no way I would’ve made on my own. I grew up playing golf, I’ve been playing all my life. It’s the one sport that I can play as a musician and know that I probably won’t fuck myself up too badly. But I don’t get to play enough to really get my game together. I haven’t gotten a handicap, but I have my moments. Like yesterday I shot a 41 on the front which is pretty darn good, and then I shot a 48 on the back – the wheels came off. When you first started touring with Miley, was Hi-Fi on hiatus?Yeah. I kind of put a bullet in the band in 2005, when we were touring behind Hearts on Parade. You know, I had been on the road since I was 21. Letters to Cleo toured like madmen, then I went straight from that into Veruca Salt, and then I went from that straight into Hi-Fi. So I’d been on the road since ’91-’92, just non-stop. So around 2005 I said, Y’know what, I’ve got to take a break. There were other things I wanted to do, and I also just needed to lead a normal life for a minute. I was getting married and doing that whole thing, it was time to try to be a normal adult person for a while.And that lasted about six seconds?(Laughs) Exactly. And after about a month of that I was ready to go back to rocking. No, I mean honestly it was playing with Miley that brought American Hi Fi back from the dead. Because I hired Jamie as my guitar player in the band. And that was it: we were just sitting around on the bus strumming guitars and playing songs, and Jamie said, Hey, that kind of sounds like a Hi-Fi song. That was the spark. How long did it take you to actually decide to make a new record?It’s funny, we were talking about it yesterday. We probably recorded this album in three weeks, if you counted the total time we spent recording it, but it took us three years to do it. It’s kind of ridiculous. We actually started working on this record when we did the first Miley tour, the “Best of Both Worlds” tour, which was two and a half years ago, maybe three years ago now. We’ve just all been so busy doing other stuff, and Miley’s kept us all really busy the last few years. It was hard to make time for it. But it was something that was important to us. So we finally finished it. I literally got the link to the mastered album yesterday. It’s finally done. It’s fun for us again. This record is the first record for us, since we made our first album, that there’s been no one leaning over our shoulders telling us what to do. I think that’s pretty typical. If you make your first record, it’s just you and the producer and that’s it. If you have a label that trusts your vision, they’ll stay off your back. Then the problem is, if you have success on your first album – which we did – then you’ve got nine million people all over your ass when you make the second. Because they want to follow it up and they want the same stuff from you, or they want a certain thing from you. And by the way, I’m not complaining about that – it’s an enviable position to be in. But the only downside is that creatively it’s not quite as sweet. I certainly felt pressured as a songwriter – just on my own – to follow up “Flavor of the Weak” with another pop-rock nugget. And that song was never written from that perspective in the first place; that song was just written as a fun rock ’n roll tune. So it changes things when you sit down and say, like, “OK, now I’m gonna write another hit.” That’s fucking hard. I really have a lot of respect for people who have had multiple hits, whoever they may be, throughout history, because it’s hard to just have one. So how was the songwriting different this time? This time it was all about us, and all about what I was feeling and what I wanted to express and what I wanted to do. And that was nice. If I had to break it down, our first record was a little more rock, our second record was a little more punk-pop, and our third record was a little more pop, and also a little more schizophrenic in general. And so this record was about me going back and listening to the bands that really had always inspired me, like Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. I listened to a ton of Zeppelin while I recorded this. Not that it comes through, but I was in more of a rock mindset, and that’s where I was on the first album. We actually thought about naming this record "2," we feel like it’s the follow up to our first record. We scrapped the "2" idea, but we went with a similar take on the cover art – it’s a play on the cassette that was on our first album. We’re giving away “Fight the Frequency,” which is the only song I’ve heard from the new album. Is it indicative of the whole?Yeah, for sure. This album is much more riff-rock. And by the way, it’s not like American Hi-Fi is Queens of the Stone Age or Kyuss, we’re always gonna have that pop edge, because that’s who we are. But it’s definitely not as produced as our other records. I really wanted it to sound like the first Foo Fighters record. And we approached it like that. We recorded bass, drums, and two guitar tracks at the same time. So there’s no edits, there’s no chopping-up of the drums. That’s the four of us in my studio playing those songs, and we just played it until we got a take that everybody was good on. And then we overdubbed on top of that. My favorite records are like that. You and Jamie, by playing with Miley, are in a different sphere than you were five or six years ago. Have there been any experiences during that time that informed this record? I don’t know. Honestly, this sounds kind of corny, but I think my love for music came back. And I think a big part of that was playing with Miley and realizing how her music affects her fans, and how seriously she takes it. She is the hardest working person I have ever met in the music business, period. On this tour, I go into her room every night before we go on stage, I bring an acoustic guitar in there, and we sing songs, I warm her up, she does vocal exercises, and she does it every night, no matter what she has going on. She makes soundcheck every day no matter what’s going on. And that was really inspiring to me. Because obviously I’m way older than her, and possibly a little bit jaded, and I think it kinda just made me love music again. And also, I had gone on to the corporate side of things. I was working for Epic Records as an A&R guy, and was a staff producer for a little while, and I loved that job – I’ve always been a little bit more of a business-minded guy in general. But I think I just woke up one day and thought, ‘You know what? I’m a rock musician, that’s what I do, that’s what I’ve always done.’ And I will work for record companies again, and I will produce records, I love A&R and I love looking for new bands, but I’m a rock guy. It’s almost like I had this midlife-crisis epiphany, without the crisis. Other people might’ve seen the Miley gig as a stepping stone to a big solo record with eighteen million guests on it and songwriters out the wazoo. This doesn’t sound like that. Right, it’s the exact opposite. It’s like, let’s go back and play upstairs at the Middle East, which is what we’re doing. That’s what it’s about. You never feel that same energy. When you’re playing arenas every night, it’s great to do that, but the energy is totally different – from playing to 20,000 people to playing to 200 at the Middle East. I want to experience that energy again in that small venue. And luckily for me – American Hi-Fi couldn’t headline an arena if we wanted to. So by proxy we’re doing what I want to do. It’s also cool to be in a position where life doesn’t end with American Hi-Fi. A big moment in my life was, I can have this band, I can do with I want to do with it, but I don’t need it to make a living, and I don’t need it to make sure my wife and I can pay our mortgage. I have other things that I do now. Creatively, that’s a great place to be for me and the other guys in the band. We all have other things we’re doing when we’re not doing Hi-Fi, so it really feels like we’re doing it for the right reasons again. Not that we ever did it for the wrong reasons. We’d get steered in certain directions occasionally, but now we’re back to a case of Bud Light and a shitty rehearsal space, and that’s where we started. You mentioned production gigs: have you been working with anyone lately?Miley has been a full time job for the last few years, but I have sneaked a few things in this year. I produced a track for Ingrid Michaelson, which was really cool. And I just produced a band from DC, actually, that I’m kind of managing now as well, and they’re going to be on the show with us at the Middle East. They’re called the Downtown Fiction, they’re really awesome guys, young guys, 19 or 20. We did an EP together before this Miley tour, and I’m gonna do their full-length in Februrary when I get back from Miley. Cameron, the lead singer, is a really great guy, great talent. They’re kind of a pop-rock band, it’s right up my alley. Do you still hear a lot of new stuff?Yeah, I get CDs at shows and from friends in the industry and people send me stuff. I think this year, like a lot of people, I’ve been totally obsessed with the new Phoenix record. When I heard that, it impacted me in a big way. When they were on Saturday Night Live they fucking destroyed. It’s one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen on there. I’ve been following them for a few years. I produced a band called Low Vs. Diamond a couple of years ago, they made a great record but it never came out, that sort of thing – the label kind of shelved it. But those guys turned me onto Phoenix, about four years ago. I’ve been checking them for a while, but when Wolfgang dropped, they really stepped up their game. OK, one last question: Anything you’re looking forward to doing when you’re back to Boston?One of my favorite activities is going to Foley’s for a pint, that’s definitely on the agenda. Maybe doing the Newbury shuffle for an afternoon, I haven’t done that in a while. I lived in Boston for 14 years – in the Back Bay and the South End for the lion’s share of that time. So I love just going around and walking my old neighborhoods.