Guitarslinger Jay Van Raalte comes complete right out of the box, a melody-savvy veteran performer and studio ace at twenty-three with highlight reels of experience earned behind six strings side-stage as a member of Charleston outfit Jump Castle Riot and front and center of slim, atmospheric power trio The Spectrum. Leaning comfortably on the execution of prime R.E.M. and honey-razor Britpop, the former competitive surfer’s debut EP Linearity throttles with coming-of-age clarity, rock n’ roll theatricality, and heartbreak-on-the-sleeve angst. I spoke to Van Raalte in advance of The Spectrum’s Grant’s Lounge debut on Friday, October 21st about singer/guitarist dynamics, writing, and various projects including a brand new full-length album tentatively scheduled for Spring 2023.
AI- Your pops is your bass player, so is it a safe assumption that he was probably one of if not your very first musical influence?
Absolutely– although maybe not in the way that people expect. My dad always played some acoustic guitar at family dinners and stuff and he definitely had a major love of music. He introduced me to U2 and R.E.M. and that was always a thing that we shared, but he didn’t play terribly seriously or professionally until I got really, really into it. I’d have guitar lessons at my house and he’d sit in the other room and take notes (laughs)! We kinda learned together, and then it went from there!
You started up the band Jump Castle Riot with Nina Murchison in high school. Was that just a, “Oh, let’s have a high school band,” or did you consider that this might be something you wanted to do as a vocation?
We were somewhat involved in the music scene professionally at that point. I had been in bands before and had performed a fair amount, and she had been in a previous band– that’s actually how we met. I saw her sing and her current band at the time didn’t have a guitar player. It was a duo, two girls that both played acoustic guitar and sang, but they didn’t have a dedicated lead guitar player. I pestered her for months to let me audition to be their guitar player– which I got! We played a couple shows and then that broke down, coincidentally, right around the time I was getting involved. But I knew I still really did not wanna let Nina go, and we ended up forming Jump Castle after that.
Was that very much a singer/guitar player dynamic like Mick and Keith or Steven Tyler and Joe Perry?
I think I wanted it to be because at the time I had a very limited view of myself as a guitar player. I was really frustrated early on by people who looked at me and assumed that I would want to be a singer or want to be fronting the band. I just wanted to play guitar. I was ecstatic to have a singer who was so talented to play against– but it turns out that I am pretty naturally inclined towards the songwriting and the production! It was very much a partnership working together on stuff like that.
But you did have some apprehension about going out under your own brand once Jump Castle Riot had run its course and everyone had to scatter to the four winds as it were. You were worried about stepping up and being the face of the project as opposed to just being the sideperson?
Absolutely. I am very naturally a behind-the-scenes person. I like being in supportive roles, I like doing hired gun guitar work– I still do a lot of that. I know some people represent that as some kind of lesser alternative, “If you couldn’t be an artist then I guess you have to be a hired gun,” which is not at all my experience!
For me, that’s work that I love and I’m honored to help people bring their vision on the road or make it happen in the studio. That was always a more natural fit for me than being the front person, but I always wrote songs and I wrote a lot and I had specific visions about how it should all come together.
By the time I had amassed a couple records worth of songs– which were all not yet released– it kinda got to the point where it was like, “Well, what? Am I gonna hire somebody to sing my songs on the road?” (Laughs) At some point, you gotta put on your big boy panties and take ownership!
That leads me to your EP Linearity. Largely, with the exception of the drums and a couple o’ overdubs, you pretty much handle everything on that project. Was that for pandemic reasons or was that a control response?
Oh, no, that EP was made in 2019, and then its release got delayed because of the pandemic. The recording was all done well before the pandemic and the songs had actually been written mostly even several years before that. At the time, it was a side project. I didn’t really intend it to be my new thing. I was busy in Jump Castle and other projects and I had these songs that didn’t really fit anywhere but I still loved them and I wanted them to get recorded. Life happened and that ended up being the first EP under this new project which is now my main thing.
You’ve got some really terrific songs on there and one thing that stands out is that challenge of those assumptions that you mentioned earlier. The picket fence appears in “Used To Be” and “Origami Stars”, that symbol of modern domesticity and conformity. “Best Times” also confronts that same notion– the fallacy that everything is downhill after high school or college. If I say that the EP smacks of a coming-of-age, tell me about this next project Something More and Kind Of Less.
I think you’re absolutely right. Those songs were written when I was going to college and they very much reflect that time. I don’t think I realized when I wrote them how rooted they were in the time I was writing them, but as we’ve been on the road and I sing them now, I’ve started to notice a kind of distance. Not that I don’t still relate to them ’cause I absolutely do, but I started to notice a kind of distance from the person I was then and the person and the experiences that I’m having now. I think Something More and Kind Of Less is a progression of that. It’s an interesting mixture of songs– about half being written during the recording process. It’s not entirely divorced from previous times, but I do think the themes and the focus have shifted a little more future-forward.
The first single that’s gonna come out is a track called “The Road Ahead”…
I listened to that one. I heard the version you did at the record store. That song, to me, felt like it was more of a reflection of what’s been going on in the country and around the world these last two years.
Absolutely. That was written probably in the summer of 2020, definitely as many people– myself included– were experiencing some upheaval of the lives we thought we were going to be leading. It sent some major changes my way but many of them have ended up sending me to really great places that I probably wouldn’t have ended up in otherwise. There’s a bright side to be found if you look for it, I guess.
What has your approach been to writing songs since the EP? You’re growing as a guitarist, you’re growing as a writer– how are those changing? Do they run parallel to each other? Do you see yourself leaning more toward the songwriter who plays the guitar or the guitarist writing the songs?
I think I’ll always see myself as a guitar player who writes songs but I also, even before I wrote songs, always really seriously wanted to be a guitarist for the song. My early idols– The Edge, Peter Buck from R.E.M.– were people who were not looking for the spotlight themselves but just trying to support everything else that’s going on and build something with the people they were playing with. I’ve always taken that really seriously, so even when I say guitarist that writes songs, I want to oversell that. My skillset has always been more focused on the production aspect, even before I knew formally what music production was, the kind of editing and thoughtfulness that it takes to get a great arrangement or a great song and put it all together. That’s what I feel I gravitate to.
What projects have you been workin’ on outside of your own?
I took advantage of the pandemic and upgraded my home studio to be closer to a professional studio because I ended up… Well, it started ’cause I was makin’ Something More and Kind Of Less out of there. Then I ended up working on other projects as well. I got hired to play guitar for this original rock musical, which then snowballed into me becoming the recording studio for it and one of the writers– music writers not story writers– which was just an incredible experience so far out of my comfort zone of rock n’ roll! But such a gift to get to work with so many talented people that I wouldn’t have met just playing bar gigs.
You graduated with a degree in mathematics and while some folks might not see the correlation between that and songwriting, I do. Studying songs and songwriters and trying to figure out how to do something different or take what you like and make it your own, I see that like studying equations and formulas and even the stars. I read an interview where you asked why is “Live Oak” a great song and why is “Country Feedback” a great song and they’re nothing alike. Through the course of your research and in practice, what have you discovered about what makes a good song?
Oooh… The easy short soundbite answer is that it can capture and communicate a feeling. Nile Rodgers, the guitar player best known for Chic but he’s also a producer behind all sorts of stuff from Bowie records to Michael Jackson records to Daft Punk’s song “Get Lucky”, has this theory he talks about, the DHM– the Deep Hidden Meaning. It’s kinda like the DNA of the song. There’s this immutable character of a song and he says about his live band that as long as they’re respecting that, they can shake things up on the road and do something different and it’s all gonna work as long as they’re keepin’ that DHM in mind and continuing to serve it. That’s what I think about songwriting and production as well. As long as everything you’re doing is in service of articulating whatever that little spark is– the thing that got you excited in the first place– then everything’s gonna work out right. But when you get run down rabbit holes of stuff that you think is cool or impressive then you start to lose sight of that spark.
How do you maintain the spark?
It seems I have these really great collaborators. My dad is my live bass player but also my partner in the recording studio. We tend to kinda collect people that fit in with our working flow. Matt Megrue co-produced Something More and Kind Of Less and we’ve got a few other people that we call on or work with. I think having people that you really trust and have a connection with, who keep you honest, and if everybody likes an idea, there’s probably somethin’ to it. Obviously, there are times when you have to, as the songwriter, say, “This is my thing and I want it like this,” but by and large, having people to bounce things off of helps keep you honest.