Northern Kentucky’s The Jericho Harlot powers ahead.
Saturday 09 June 2012
FLORENCE, KY – There are just certain people you root for. You know what they’re up against – the cosmologically-scaled hurdle that is the modern music industry. You can’t approximate the dimensions; even if you run an algorithm to figure out a given artist’s network “reach,” how can you quantify hard work, perseverance, enthusiasm and just plain dumb luck? I defy you to try; if you figure it out, let me know so we can make millions together.
They’re three thirtysomethings with a dream. They’re still after it, laboring in relative obscurity in the Midwest. They’re married with kids; they have day jobs. They go to church for goodness sakes. Not your typical rockers. Yet they’re dogged, determined. Unshakably optimistic. They must be nuts.
I meet two thirds of the Jericho Harlot at Bob Evans. For breakfast. It seems apropos for family men. Brandon Gray, the Harlot’s bassist, and guitarist Jonathan Dorris (whose stage name, “Jonny Burial,” is a complete misnomer – he’s congenial and hilarious – check out their self-produced promo videos on their YouTube channel) are already here.
I’m dragging ass – show up in sunglasses. If I’m going to be on suburban turf at 9:30 in the morning, I‘m damn sure going to advertise my hangover. It’ll scare off the straights.
“How did you guys get together?”
“When I first met Jon, Jon came to me and he’s like, ‘Dude, we should start a band.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m already committed to another band.’ And two months later, ‘Dude, we should start a band.’ ‘Well, I’m still committed to that same band.’ Then a year later, ‘Dude! We should start a band!’”
“It was like that Star Wars deal,” Dorris says.
Gray: “Jedi mind tricks.”
“The first time I met Brandon I was really impressed.”
“ I’m bad ass, dude.”
“Whatever. I was gonna say something really nice about you, man.”
“ Go ahead, you still can.” Gray looks at me.
The waitress is here. Drink? She looks at me, too. Now everyone’s looking at me. Blast it.
“Cream and sugar?”
“Pot. Black.” Dear God, hurry.
Gray raises an eyebrow.
“ I need to wake up. You’re aware that pop punk isn’t my thing, right? And I have no idea how I’m going to write about a Christian rock band.”
“I don’t know that I’d call the Jericho Harlot a ‘Christian’ rock band,” Gray smiles.
The waitress is back. Mercifully quick.
“ There’s your vat of coffee,” Gray says.
“ I’ll probably drink every bit of it.”
Dorris chimes in. “Good. What was it Mike Ditka said? ‘Coffee is the lifeblood of champions?’ That’d make a great t-shirt.”
“Whether we are or we aren’t, those definitely aren’t our intentions,” Gray explains, as I pour. “When we got together, we didn’t decide we were going to be a Christian rock band. We’re Christians in a band. We happen to be playing rock and roll music. If you look at our lyrics, there’s nothing blatantly there that screams, ‘Jesus died for your sins.’ Although if you really do dig into it, you can find that in certain ways. My first band was called Father Son. I was 14 years old when we put that together. And that was what you’d call a Christian rock band, because we were singing lyrics like, ‘I believe in Jesus. You should too.’“ He laughs.
“That would make a good t-shirt.” Dorris needs to be in charge of marketing. I’m not sure for who, though – I think the Lord does His own.
“ If people associate us with the Gospel, that’s great. But if they don’t, that’s OK too.”
The Jericho Harlot’s sound is bright, three-chord, simple. Harmonized choruses with long vocal holdovers. They owe much to early Green Day.
“I think it’s a little bit of a throwback to easier times in rock,” Dorris asserts.
“We want to keep it simple. You see some of these rock bands today – it’s so overproduced,” Gray explains. “You know, we need seventeen string parts and a horn section here and layers and layers and layers of keyboards. And I’ve played in a band that tried to do stuff like that. Simplicity always sells. They’re simple, good melodies that have good hook, and everyone in the room can hum along.”
Gear: Gray plays a Fender Blacktop jazz bass. Dorris is a Gibson man. He rotates between a hollow-body ES-137, a Les Paul Goldtop and a Les Paul Sunburst.
“I grew up playing guitar,” Gray says. “And now I never play it anymore.”
“Because he’s a bass player,” Dorris hisses through a smile.
“Because I’m playing bass.” He hangs his head.
“You must unlearnnnn what you have learnnnned.” I’d note Dorris is a trilogy geek, but that would out me. Wait: bollocks, I’m busted.
“ When I started playing guitar, Stevie Ray Vaughn was my biggest influence. I’d sit around and just jam.”
“But I think that’s where a lot of our sound comes from,” Dorris says. “You have two really good guitar players, and one of them plays bass. The two really meshed well. He almost plays bass like it’s a guitar.”
“ Jon’s a really good piano player, and eventually we’ll incorporate piano, but we’re still gonna keep it a three-piece. And we may very well do songs live where it’s piano-based and drums, or piano, acoustic guitar and drums, just depending on how we break it down.”
“I’ll play them both at the same time. With my teeth.”
I look at Dorris and raise an eyebrow. “While it’s on fire?”
“Yeah. It’s on youtube.com/thejerichoharlot.”
I ask Gray about Jericho Harlot’s influences.
“Alkaline Trio. Or MxPx. We’re both huge Keith Green fans. You look at Keith Green back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s – what he was doing then was considered rock and roll.”
There’s that Christian thing again. And I don’t want to say that like it’s a dirty word – I’m card-carrying. But my card has some dinged-up corners, and it may have been folded over a few times and run through the washer. I staunchly defend my internal separation between church and state. My state right now is rock’n’roll. God and I have a working agreement: He lets me work. I feel uncomfortable mixing the two.
I’ve heard these guys play. It wasn’t a revival show. It was good, solid, quicktime rock. I want to know how the Jericho Harlot bridges the crossover gap.
“I don’t find it difficult,” Gray says. “I look at where I work – I work in a firehouse. I hang out with some pretty unruly guys. I see a lot of tragedy. But I don’t find it difficult to get off at the firehouse at7 amand go play worship on Sunday morning, go from one extreme to the other. I’m not going to change who I am, whether I’m in church or whether I’m in a bar. If we play the 86 Club, we’re going to show up as The Jericho Harlot. And if we playMOTRPub, we’re going to show up as The Jericho Harlot.”
Gray pauses, continues. “If someone comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, are you guys a Christian band,’ I’m not gonna go, yeah, we’re a Christian band, I’m gonna say, you know, we’re Christians in a band,”
Dorris agrees. “If you’ve got guys who work, say, in this restaurant together and they have a band, they’re not a ‘restaurant band.’ If you’ve got guys down the street that knew each other in high school, they’re not a ‘high school friends band.’ I’m not an anything – I’m just writing good rock tunes and my faith comes out in my songwriting, and that’s pretty much where it stops.” Flippant, but I see his point.
“I saw this one band, this group of girls, I’m not kidding you – they’re all like-minded individuals with juvenile diabetes.” (Let the record show: Dorris is referring to the Pump Girls.) “Look them up. Thank God for Maxim magazines in doctor’s offices, is all I’m saying.”
He laughs. I take a second to try and resolve Maxim and juvenile diabetes being conversationally linked. Mindboggling.
Breakfast arrives. Gray has the Sunshine Skillet with biscuits. Dorris scarfs a waffle and hasbrowns. I’m difficult: Western egg white-only omelet and yogurt.
Spirituality in an artist certainly isn’t taboo. The late Adam Yauch was an avowed Buddhist. Johnny Cash was never sidelined for singing about Jesus. And subjects that might normally be considered taboo in polite conversation – hard drug use, graphic sexual depictions, crime – are routinely explored in pop music. No one says boo. But it seems to be an image thing – at its base, I think it’s because people are afraid of being judged, and they feel like most Christians spend the majority of their time doing just that. I feel it myself.
I ask Dorris his opinion.
“Well, I’d say that 60% of Christians are creepy,” he chuckles. “They make themselves into this mold, this model: ‘The Bible says this, this, this and this, and if I’m not this, nobody’s going to see I’m a Christian.’ Well, that’s not what the Bible says at all. Jesus asks you to pick up your cross and follow Him. So, I think most Christians pigeonhole themselves into that. ‘I can’t be myself, I have to be what God wants me to be.’ Well what God [also] wants you to be is happy. God wants you to be yourself, because He created you that way. I think what we’re doing is taboo. I think we walk that line really hard for a reason.”
So is the Jericho Harlot message-based or music-based?
“The good part about that is from a songwriting standpoint, we have a lot of things to pull from that a lot of similar-genre artists don’t have,” says Dorris. “We’re all in our thirties, you know?”
Gray: “I’m not, I’m eighteen.”
Dorris looks back at me and blinks. “I don’t know what to say to that.”
“I think people overthink their songwriting a lot,” Dorris says. “You gotta get a message across; at the same time, you don’t want it to be complicated enough that somebody who is not a musician won’t understand it. I think that’s who we appeal to.”
Dorris takes primary songwriting duty for the group: “That’s just the way it’s worked out.”
“ There are songs that Jon will write, but I’ll carry the vocal. I definitely have the higher range. And that’s one thing we’ve had to watch. We’ll write songs and then it will be like, ‘Crap! Why did we write it this high?’” Gray laughs. “We tried tuning down a half step, and that just didn’t work.”
“It didn’t sound the same.”
“It lost some of that vibe that it had,” Gray continues. “When it comes to our songwriting, we try to keep that in check.”
So what does The Jericho Harlot need?
“Places likeMOTRPub that are doing these free shows, man, that’s what needs to happen for bands that, especially in this town, are playing all original music and want to find gigs,” Gray enjoins. “Anywhere else we wanna play, it’s like, ‘Oh, you guys gotta pre-sell tickets and then you gotta jump through this loophole, then you’ve gotta cross this bridge.’ Is it really worth it to me to pre-sell twenty tickets for a total show of 50 people?”
“Nobody has a built-in crowd anymore,” Dorris says. “I remember growing up, we’d used to go to the same bar every Friday or Saturday night to see bands. InLouisville, it was called Uncle Pleasant’s. I saw everyone from bands you’ve never heard of to Green Jelly that place. But there’s not a whole lot of places like that anymore. It’s like it’s gone the way of the buffalo.”
They’re good guys. They’re solid musicians. OK, so. They’re Christians. They can still rock it. Hell, Jesus was an original rebel rouser, wasn’t He?
“We just need Cincinnati and other towns to give us a chance,” Dorris says. “People will be pleased. Give it a listen, you’ll like it.”
I have. I do.
The Jericho Harlot is:
Jonathan Dorris (aka Johnny Burial): Guitar, Vocals
Brandon Gray: Bass, Vocals
Mike Mulholland: Drums
Friday, June 22, 8 pm: The Richwood Project
The Jericho Harlot, with RavenHill (Nashville, TN), Habilus and The Brent Reed Band. $10 cover.
The Richwood Opry, 10915 Dixie Hwy, Walton, KY 41094.