From the magazine: ISSUE 88, October/November 2013
Everyone in Happy Jawbone Family Band has a day job. Its current five members are employed all across Brattleboro, an offbeat town in southeast Vermont that’s become a supernatural magnet for bookish, boundary-pushing songwriters, like King Tuff and Blanche Blanche Blanche. They work on farms and in record stores and at sandwich shops. They plant flowers and sell used vinyl and make maple syrup lattes. Individually, they’re a bunch of eccentric, self-described “working stiffs.” “We’re sort of a ragtag team,” explains the band’s frontman Luke Csehak over the phone on a late-August weekday, just after sunset. He’s the kind of guy who’s always wearing dark sunglasses, even inside.
Now 29, Csehak started the band when he was a wide-eyed young writing student at Naropa University’s amazingly named Jack Kerouac School for the Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. While at school, he met Francis Carr, now the band’s lead guitarist; they hit it off, and began collaborating musically, which at first just meant playing sloppy covers of The Fugs. They eventually called themselves Happy Jawbone Family Band, and by the end of 2009, they had released On the Wrong Side of the Candy Machine and Family Matters, two sprawling cassettes crammed with merrily dysmorphic freak-folk, each 40 tracks long. After graduating and moving from Boulder to Brattleboro, they fleshed out the group by “just sort of manipulating different friends to play different instruments,” Csehak recalls. This scheming extended to the frontman’s wife, Vermont native Elsabeth Bourne-Kebbell-Csehak, who initially had no musical background whatsoever. “I never thought I would play music in my life,” she says, when Csehak passes her the phone. “I played [drums] on a cardboard box and pots and pans for a long time.”
Since 2009, they’ve put out countless home-recorded tapes, EPs and full-lengths on various tiny, homespun labels like Night People and Feeding Tube, recording with a perpetually in-flux lineup—often including Csehak’s brother, Bobby, on bass, and David Lineal on keys—and varying standards of production quality. But their latest record, simply called Happy Jawbone Family Band, is a tightly wound rebirth, a couple thousand miles away from of the blown-out, unfocused sounds of their earliest releases, thanks in part to production help from Jarvis Taveniere, whose own psych-inflected folk band, Woods, made a similar leap from lo-fi to hi-res in recent years. The sturdy, classic pop melodies are still pervasive, as is Csehak’s penchant for screwball storytelling, but the opportunity to mess around with retro tube amps and vintage telecasters at Gary’s Electric Studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn proved a massive, textural upgrade from their home studio.
The characters that populate the Happy Jawbone Family Band universe are misfits, fuck-ups and tragic underachievers. Could you fall in love/ With a girl like me/ Who could cut her own tongue out/ When she was just 17? Csehak wonders on “Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid,” the album’s centerpiece. Toward the end of the song, desperate, warped vocals are looped on top of jangly dissonance and erratic auxiliary percussion. It’s a weird, noisy example of the way the tracks on Happy Jawbone Family Band surprise you: it’s pretty-sounding, straightforward garage rock—until it’s not. “It’s a lot like the plans for a house, like choosing what wood you’re gonna use,” says Csehak of the band’s experiences narrowing down a dizzying abundance of ideas and influences to an album you can sing along to. “We selected the songs we knew we could live in. It’s become the house that I live in now.”