The music that inspires composer/musician Jonathan Scales cuts a wide swath “from Bach to Kanye; Stravinsky to Bjork. It’s kinda all over the place,” he says, demurring specificity. Jonathan often defies expectations, carving his unique niche from his signature plaid sunglasses to his unparalleled sound. Lest you create a personal mythology for him, the steel
We meet to chat moments after he and his band, Jonathan Scales Fourchestra arrive in Brooklyn for a performance later that evening at jazz musician Gerry Eastman’s Williamsburg Music Center; one stop on an intensely booked Fall tour. Over a quick bite at nearby Rabbithole, he genially shares his history, passions and plans for the future.
In giving their only child the middle name Le’Rue, his parents did not intend a variant of the French la rue, “the street.” Yet there’s a certain prescience in his naming as his has been and continues to be a life on the road. ”My dad was in the military, so we moved around a lot,” he says. And as an actively touring bandleader and musician himself, he has seen a few highways.
Because of the wide age gap between he and his older sister Tanika (his father’s firstborn) Jonathan’s peripatetic childhood was spent largely in solitary pursuits. “I had a lot of time by myself. Not a lot of people around the house to play with, so I worked on my own little projects; read Goosebumps books.” He attributes the intense focus he has today to his early solitude.
He recalls the shy seven-year-old, hiding behind his mother, embarrassed by the comments women would make to her about her blue-eyed brown boy. He’s gonna be a lady-killer when he grows up! As Jonathan grew older, people would often assume that he either donned colored contact lenses or that he is biracial.
“I don’t remember San Francisco (where he was born,) I was really young when we left.” Most of his life has been spent below the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina save for his middle school years when his father was stationed in Germany. Jonathan picked up the German language with great facility. “I was really interested in it but,” he admits, “I’ve forgotten a lot of it.” He picked up his first instrument, the saxophone, in the sixth grade.
He remembers music in the house as he was growing up: “a lot of gospel music.” He also recalls listening to Michael Jackson’s Bad and Dangerous. “My dad would play those while they cleaned up on Saturdays. My dad majored in music in college, but when he joined the Army music fell to the side for him for a couple of decades.” Retired from the Army, Mr. Scales is now a middle school music teacher.
Jonathan performs a cover of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky."
Back in the States in Fayetteville, NC, Jonathan’s junior year of high school would introduce him to the marching band of Seventy-First High and fellow band mate, Rachel Harris, who would eventually become his wife.
“I had it set in my mind as a stubborn high school senior that I would take the SAT only once, no matter what. I was a smart kid, but I didn’t do well on it. I applied to Appalachian State University in Boone, NC; the only college application I put in. I knew I wanted to go there, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.” He recalls very clearly, “On a Sunday evening, my parents and I went to see the remake
Appalachian State University (ASU) has a renowned steel pan program which was initiated by Dr. Scott Meister
Jonathan tips his hat to Elliot “Ellie” Mannette, the Trinidadian steel pan master who revolutionized the instrument. Known as “the father of the modern steel pan,” Mr.
Another musician to whom he gives major props is Béla Fleck. “Crazily enough, the first thing I ever heard him play was a piece on the live album Live Art. He plays electric banjo with a pedal that makes it sound like steel pan,” he says. The first time he saw Béla Fleck perform was in concert with bass player Edgar Meyer. The two had conducted a clinic at ASU’s Hayes School of Music earlier that day and Jonathan “was blown away by them.” Tickets for that evening’s concert were sold out and he sat in his dorm bummed that he was missing it. “I got a call from my friend during intermission Hey Jonathan, if you come down right now, you could just float in, they’re not checking tickets. I ran down and caught the second half of the show and literally, quite literally that was the moment I realized I wanted to perform and travel, to do this. It was so amazing, I couldn’t even clap. We were so blown away by it, all we could do was shake our heads,” he remembers.
He started playing professionally upon graduation in 2006, though there was a series of making-ends-meet jobs that he remained mum about, wanting to maintain “an untarnished appearance” as a musician. “I never alluded to the fact that I was working, never said on Facebook, ‘Aw I’m having a rough day at work.’ When I first moved to Asheville I had a job at a theater, doing tech, backstage crew, stringing lights, building sets for plays and stuff like that.” It was pretty cool being on the back side of it, seeing artists come in, working with them.” He learned how things operate, so he’s “very comfortable talking to the stage crews” now that he’s the act. He did landscaping “for about a week, that was the hardest job, let’s just leave it at that” and cleaned vacation houses in the “very scenic, very beautiful mountains of Asheville. He washed dishes at an Italian restaurant and “for five years worked at a factory that replicates CDs and DVDs. I printed the images on the discs. It takes a month to train, the machine is gigantic. I know how discs are made, when I look at one it gives me flashbacks of 12-hour shifts.” He recalls that the clientele of the company included Microsoft, Apple and Xbox. “So it was a place that produced a million discs a day, it was pretty hard core. You couldn’t leave the building without a security search, a lot of the discs were programs that weren’t released yet.”
He started his 4-piece band with guitar, bass, drums and his versatile double second pans in 2007. They launched in Boone at a spot called Black Cat under the name Jonathan Scales Quartet, though he knew he’d change the name to something more befitting his quirky sensibilities. “I didn’t want a name like Jonathan Scales Band, Group, Ensemble, Experiment, Experience, Collective, or Project. Somehow, the name Fourchestra came to me, so the first thing I did was Google it.” And it was a go. The foursome, however, became a trio when the guitarist left the band. They maintained the name and now the fourth element is up for interpretation: the synthesis of the three musicians’ efforts or even the audience who experiences the music. ” My degree is in composition so throughout school I was writing for piano and orchestra on a grander scale. The music is a bit complicated, but I said from the beginning, no charts on stage, everyone has to play from memory.” The Virgo acknowledges that he’s a bit of a taskmaster. “But I think people understand that you perform the music better when you don’t have to stare at a page; when you internalize it.” When asked about his process he says “The process starts with a concept instead of starting with the actual notes. I think to myself what do I want it to sound like? What kind of vibe do I want it to have? What direction do I want it to go? What influences do I want to pull from? I tell myself I want the meters to be like this; the harmony’s gonna be like this. I talk it all out with myself.” The band in its current incarnation (with Cody Wright on bass and Phill Bronson on drums) have been together for a couple of years now, touring feverishly. It’s become a bit more collaborative. “Cody might have an idea and I’ll try to incorporate it.” Or if Jonathan is writing he might delineate a section and say “Hey, if you want to add your input on this part, that’ll be cool.”
The Fourchestra performs Jonathan's Béla Fleck tribute composition, "Lurkin."
He has recorded four albums since graduating from ASU. Here, a brief chronicle of his progression in his own words:
One Track Mind, 2007. Recorded the summer after college. I wanted friends on it so there’s different drummers on every track, different guitarists, so not the most cohesive in terms of sound, but you can see the foundation. It was never performed live.
Plot/Scheme, 2008. It was extra produced: horns and strings and things we wouldn’t have at a live show; narrations.
Character Farm and Other Short Stories, 2011. A lighter production with a comic theme and a “live” feel: four guys in a room playing together.
Fourchestra, 2013. The most focused of all (recordings to date) the same musicians throughout, so sound wise, it’s really cohesive. We have an underlying bed of strings and horns. That was fun for me as a composer to write the parts for the other instruments. (The debut recording as JSF)
His collaborator in life for the past 12 years is the brilliant Rachel, a competitive West Coast Swing-dancing, environmental engineer who conducts water audits for cities. They maintained a long-distance relationship while attending separate colleges four hours apart. Though he has no great love for swing dancing–”but I definitely possess the skill to do so”-he’ll dance with her when she needs practice, and they have danced publicly a few times. They celebrated five years of marriage in November and share their 1950′s era Asheville home with their large dog, Ava.
Kicking it with them makes his list of
1. Chocolate. He’s a “reverse snob,” he says. Though he can certainly enjoy a pricey truffle, his fave is a good old Hershey’s bar with almonds. “They are two different experiences.”
2. Hanging with Rachel. She’s my best friend,” he says of his wife. With his heavy road schedule, he looks forward to home life with Rachel and their Rhodesian Ridgeback/Great Dane “dog-child,” Ava. “I’m always touring, so it’s nice to just be at home.”
3. Studying Languages. There’s the German from childhood, of course, but he started studying Spanish last year, teaching himself with “a little Rosetta Stone, grammar lessons on you tube, apps on my phone for verb conjugation, stuff like that. The internet helped a lot. And talking to people.” To the detriment of the music, he immersed himself fully in language study. He’s since found a balance between creating his music and fitting in some daily lecciones. “I use it more when I relax or when we’re in the van traveling.” His goal for 2014 is to learn Mandarin Chinese, which he began studying a few weeks ago.
4. North Carolina. As a military child, he’s lived many places, but North Carolina is “where I’ve been most, it’s home,” he says. He loves the natural beauty of his home state and the “open-minded, artsy community” of his hometown, Asheville. “We moved to Fayetteville NC, then I went to college in Boone NC; then I moved to Asheville. I usually say I am from North Carolina in general because out of all the places I’ve lived, most have been in NC. Ft. Bragg, NC, which was a very multicultural environment, with families from all over. It’s where he learned to play soccer.
5. Traveling. Without doing the driving, he clarifies. “I drive (frequently as he, Phill and Cody share driving duties to their gigs) but I don’t like to drive. I like to sleep in the car. I sleep really well in moving vehicles.” Above, the Fourchestra’s chariot during a Colorado Tour, courtesy of their hosts.
6. Writing Music. Culled from a lengthy Facebook post, Jonathan muses on writing. “To me, writing is like improvising. Any piece of mine that you hear, more than likely I’ve thought about the concept for a good while, but I’ll formulate it and write it all out in just a sitting. I’m not saying that writing faster is better, it’s just how I do it. I’m big on using some ‘mathematical,’ 20th century compositional techniques and challenging myself to make something out of that which people of today (and I) can relate to.” He frequently employs the use of Set Theory: “The way I describe it is, you kind of make your own attributes to make the piece what it is…it’s kind of like each planet having its own properties, (like gravitational pull, vegetation, life forms etc.) In that way, you can say…ok…this piece isn’t going to have a standard tonality, like major or minor, but instead it will have its own vibe, and then you can use your ‘rules’ for that ‘world’ to reinforce whatever ‘vibe’ you’re trying to convey. BUT the point in set theory, is to create a tonality outside of the standard, which brings me to superimposition. Superimposing one musical attribute over another is something that I like to do a lot in my writing. I like to find ideas that ‘naturally occur’ and structure something out of them. You can use anything around you and make a musical idea that will hopefully come across as unique. As far as chords…I tend to mix traditional harmony with completely out-of-whack harmony and challenge myself to make it work. I believe you can make most things work just by performing it with conviction! A lot of my progressions are built from non-harmonic, pattern and math-based concepts.” Though he doesn’t think college is for everybody, he did “learn a lot of interesting ways to look at music from studying composition” at ASU. “And it also helped me to develop my improv style of composing, due to the fact that you have deadlines that you have to meet for school and you stay out late hanging out with friends and have to write something meaningful overnight! Studying comp in school also helped me to convey my ideas, in WORDS, to real musicians who are performing your music but don’t necessarily share your same vision of the music.”
7. The Music of Béla Fleck. From the first taste of the Fleck tonic back in college he’s been hooked. The eclectic music of the banjo-picking band leader opened a world for Jonathan. I haven’t gotten to work with Béla, but I’ve kinda jammed with him a few times. We know each other now. I’ve worked with everybody in his band. All the people in the Flecktones, I’ve worked with them. Victor Wooten’s on our album, Howard Levy’s on our album. We’ve worked with Jeff Coffin. We worked with Future Man. “It’s one of my dreams to play with Béla Fleck.” He recently recorded a tribute song to the banjo maestro and posted it on Twitter. View the video above.
8. Popcorn. Not one to gush, he nonetheless waxes rhapsodic about the puffed kernels. “Popcorn is so awesome. I eat it with a lot of butter, layered butter. I know it’s not good for you.” While in college he “probably saved hundreds of dollars” by reusing again and again a large movie popcorn bag at a cinema which offered free refills. His friends dubbed him the “popcorn bandit.” Another theater offers a bucket of popcorn at a whopping “fifteen or sixteen dollars, but you can bring it back all year for .50 refills. For a popcorn connoisseur its great,” he says. “I don’t like to jeopardize the integrity of popcorn, so I don’t like flavored popcorn. I have an old school popcorn maker at my house.”
9. Going to the Movies. ”I like the experience of going out to see a movie on a big screen.” But he doesn’t read reviews, watch trailers nor even want to know in advance what the film is about. He acknowledges, however that his favorite genre is psychological thrillers. ”I like saying something is psychologically thrilling. That’s funny to me.” As he didn’t cut his teeth on comic books, he’s less interested in superhero powers than supernatural ones (though his second album cover features him in comic book art.) “I like post-apocalyptic movies like Children of Men,” he says. He also enjoys a little low-brow, second-run film fun at Brew-n-View. “You order your food and during a quiet dramatic moment they’ll yell out for you to pick it up while the movie’s on.” But, he laughs. “It’s three bucks and the popcorn’s cheap.”
10. Performing with the Fourchestra. ”I started the band in 2007 as a quartet, but when the guitar player left we continued on as a trio.” In the absence of the guitar the remaining members grew stronger. “Once the fourth person was gone, we all felt a responsibility to fill this void musically. We’re all playing differently. Though space and silence are also important in music, vibe wise, we upped the ante on our whole performance. It’s a lot more focused; a lot more intense. It revolutionized our sound.” After a short time off for the holidays, they’ll return to touring early next year and head into the studio to record a new album in February.