In today’s music scene the responsibility to maintain and push forward experimental progressive metal lies in the hands of few, and the Western Massachusetts power-trio, Ross Jenssen, is an instrumental piece of the equation. Comprised of Brian Ross (bass), Jules Jenssen (drums), and Sam McGarrity, Ross Jenssen ingenuously describes their sound as “cinematic, evocative, futuristic music that plays like the soundtrack to a crazy dream.” I couldn’t agree more with that description. When I first saw them perform at last year’s lespectacle, I was taken aback by the trio’s uncanny ability to tell a story in the absence of words, as well as the raw instrumental dexterity and uncommon grit dripping from each track.
Jules is a drummer on his own level. You might already know of him from a couple of his other bands like the Normal Instruments (who have a nice March run set up, check it out here) and The Indobox, and I have nothing but nice things to say about his drumming. He rocks a powerful kick drum that drives each song with incredible energy, and the versatility of his drumming will keep you completely engaged throughout an entire set. Sam, who also plays in The Nice Ones, glides through each complex riff with a sense of control that serves total justice to the melodies of Ross Jenssen’s instrumental tall-tales. And then Brian, who met Jules in their previous band Higher Organix, brings their compositions a Les Claypool-esque quality that elevates each rhythm with stand-out bass playing.
Today (2/7/17), Ross Jenssen released its sophomoric studio EP (below), fittingly titled Stories, through independent outlets. The band recorded and performed the EP live as an ensemble with minimal overdubs added in post-production, and the studio EP follows their daring debut LP, Phrases, which was released in 2015. Drawing on the momentum of tomorrow’s grand reveal, Ross Jenssen has a handful of high-profile EP release live dates to look forward to in February, including a 2/11 gig in Northampton, MA, with lespecial (tickets), a 2/22 Boston show with In Flux (tickets), and a huge, surely psychedelic live experience on 2/24 at the one and only House of YES with Consider the Source (tickets). Ahead of the release and run of shows, I sat down with Jules to talk new music, the origins of the band, and future plans. Mark my words when I tell you that you should jump on this bandwagon now: there’s really no better time to start following Ross Jenssen.
Sound Fix: Hey Jules, happy we could connect here, thanks for your time! To kick things off, for someone new to Ross Jenssen, how would you describe the band and the sound you’re going for?
Jules Jenssen: It’s hard to define the sound we’re going for because I’m pretty convinced it doesn’t quite exist yet. I suppose instead of trying to just find a sound it’s more about trying to find a vibe or a combination of vibes. These different elements can be a result of rhythm, melody, and texture that can all be drawn from different styles that we like and then re-imagined and combined for a new configuration. By taking the guitar tone of a metal track and using more synth-like bass tones, while the drums float between techy-metal-esque to broken beat to J Dilla style beats and more, the result allows us to combine styles in a more cohesive way than say a jam band playing something that sounds like a bluegrass song for 20 minutes and then playing a song that sounds like a 2-chord techno jam for 20 minutes. Overall, we are very much focused on composition, not improvisation. We are decidedly bringing in heavier, more progressive elements that we think a lot more people like than they actually realize. I think a lot of people shy away from “metal” because they just think about the screaming vocals and not the power of the tones of the instruments, which is what I am most attracted to in that music. We’re definitely not a “metal” band though. We’ve been calling it “heavy future groove.”
SF: Tell me about the earliest chapter of the band. How did you, Brian and Sam first get together to create Ross Jenssen?
JJ: Well, Brian and I have been playing music together for over ten years at this point. He has always loved heavy music and grew up listening to RATM, Primus, Nirvana, and a lot more music that I actually got into later in life. This newest iteration of our musical venture was also born out of a dark place in my life. I suppose that somewhat accounts for why my feelings regrading direction of this band, with the more heavy and aggressive music was where I wanted to take it. I was just getting over the second of three major back surgeries that took me off the road and put me in a pretty bummed out mental state for a while. Additionally, the festival I co-produced took a fatal hit, and many other things that I thought comprised my identity all went away within a 6 to 8 month period of time. I suppose one of the only things I thought I still had that made me me was my name, so when starting the new band I figured without a great name on hand (which is very hard to come by when under pressure), using our last names would help people understand it was us in this new project. This was all right before we met Sam and realized he was a fantastic fit for the project. We met through our friends in lespecial and had Sam join us on some material that we had written for a debut release. Sam is one the sweetest people ever and an absolute monster player, and we knew he had to be in the band. The tough part was we had just rebranded for a third time and started building the new project, leaving us in a weird spot with the name we had chosen that only reflected two of the now three members. Currently we look at the name as kind of an alternate character that we all embody. If anyone has suggestions or advice on powerfully rebranding with a better name we’re open to ideas! **laughs** With the current state of social media and how much you have to pay to play these days to build a brand, re-naming and rebranding right now seems naïve and like a waste of momentum, efforts, and money spent on this brand already. Overall, we want to let the music speak for itself, and when people listen they will hear that all three members are fully represented, and together we create the personality of the character that is Ross Jenssen.
SF: I’m catching you at an exciting time for Ross Jenssen, as you recently announced the release date of your sophomoric release, Stories, which is dude out February 7th. How would describe the new EP? How does it compare to your debut album, Phrases?
JJ: The Stories EP is a snapshot into a style of music we started exploring more over the course of last year. It’s hard to sum up concisely, but is a more melodic-textural version of what most people would call instrumental progressive metal. Examples of bands really killing it in the scene right now would be Animals As Leaders, Plini, Chon, Intervals, and more. The EP was mastered by Taylor Larson, who plays in From First To Last, and has engineered/mixed/mastered acts like Periphery, Veil of Maya, Jason Reeves Richardson, Luke Holland and many more. It’s cool in this modern age of social media to easily reach out to someone who’s directly impacted some of your biggest inspirations to get them involved with your own project. All three songs on “Stories” are pretty heavy and have a similar aesthetic because they were all recorded at the same time in a live studio session where all three of us played the full arrangements together as an ensemble. We went back to minimally overdub certain guitar rhythm harmonies and even had my dad play violin on two of the three tracks! I also added a little synth part to the first song. Compared to Phrases it’s way lighter on the electronic elements and some of the other styles and sound designs that we will continue to integrate in upcoming material. There aren’t any crazy bass effects like on some of the older songs, because this material is much more about the actual playing of the instrument and not just experimental tones.We love both methods, but all three of these songs share a similar vibe, and the futuristic tonal experimentation wasn’t as much a part of the approach this time. However, we already started writing a bunch of new music, much of which includes some of our most far out and experimental live sound design and manipulation. I’ll get back to that!
SF: What process does the band take when creating new music?
JJ: There’s a bunch of different ways that song ideas can start for us. I suppose that’s why we end up coming up with a lot of varying styles of songs. Sometimes Brian will have a cool tap line or big powerful melodic riffs that can really be a great starting point to work off of. The same goes for Sam who is always coming up with cool parts that allow me to really experiment with some rhythmic variations. A new beat or groove that I think up can be a starting point for a song, too. I also have a fun collection of synthesizers and electronics that allow me to create ideas and parts that can be great to spark creativity. Same goes for using Brian’s crazy pedals and coming up with new sounds and effect combinations that can be a great foundation for a new track. It’s all about having fun and we don’t think about genres and rules when creating new ideas. Organizing the material into cohesive groups is a later part of the process.
SF: Tell us about your personal music background. When did you first start playing the drums? What other projects have you been involved in?
JJ: I’ve been immersed in music of all styles – live, studio, and otherwise, ever since I was born. My dad has been a professional musician his entire life. His main instrument is violin, but he also plays about twelve other instruments very well and many others at a pretty strong level. Throughout the course of my childhood he played jazz, swing, country, folk, classical, and Americana – all with great bands who had amazing musicians that became my status quo. There are some seriously talented and accomplished players from my hometown community, many of which have done some incredible and huge things throughout their careers. (I live 3 minutes from the famed Church where Arlo Guthrie had that fated and famed Thanksgiving from Alice’s Restaurant!) Anyway, a large contingent of killer players settled down here and created a scene that was pretty awesome to grow up on the inside of. My dad was also a music teacher, and ran a nightclub that had awesome music of all styles when I was young. Growing up, my parents weren’t the types to really play the classics like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd around the house, not that they didn’t like them, but I was more raised on things like The Band, Bob Dylan, classic jazz, tons of New Orleans heritage music, ( my grandfather had over 50k jazz records) and classical music because my dad did a lot of that as well. It was only on my own later down the road that I discovered and grew a love for bands I mentioned before that I wasn’t exposed to by my parents. When I started playing drums I was lucky to have my dad teaching me much more about playing musically than technically which I think was very important and advantageous for me at that stage in my musical development. Instead of coming to the drums like a lot of students do where you have rigorous lessons from the beginning, which definitely has benefits that I needed to make up for later in life, I came at it from a much more musical standpoint because my dad would illuminate things like dynamics, song structure, highlighting the other musicians and really listening as the main fundamental elements. That approach has allowed me to apply the more technical knowledge to a real useful end as I grew that part of my playing. As I started to self educate more and really take it seriously, there were certain technical aspects about drumming my dad just honestly didn’t know about because he wasn’t a drummer. I needed to learn a lot of those things quickly which really lit a fire under my ass to get a better practice routine and make up for the lost time on the technical side of things.
In terms of other projects that I’ve had, there of been many since high school starting with The Complete Unknowns, that included members of the band Bella’s Bartok as well as featuring Clay Squire, the guitarist from Brian and I’s first band together, Higher Organix. In addition to those two projects, other full-time bands that I’ve committed to include The Indobox from Boston which is more of an indie-synth-rock act. Also, Normal Instruments, which is really just a fun get-together improv group featuring members of different regional acts. NI is all about the fun of making music with friends you respect and has no pressure or obligation’s or deadlines associated with its musical creations, which gives it a great freedom. It’s also an intense exercise for listening, thinking on your feet, and having stamina to play long, physically demanding shows. I also used to produce a lot more electronic music under the name ElectronicAnonymous, but have combined those skills back into Ross Jenssen. Another project of mine is Hungry Hill, which is a more Folk Rock/Americana band with my Dad playing guitar and singing songs he’s been writing since the 70’s, as well as Clay and Brian. It’s a very special band to me and we’ll be releasing some material soon! I’ve done pickup gigs for bands like Particle, Gater, and more. I also love doing studio sessions from my own home studio (Shabby Road) or elsewhere. Learning new songs fast and giving your own sound and flavor to the music is one the most rewarding and fun experiences for me. So send me some tracks!
SF: What drummer or band would you point to as your biggest source of influence?
JJ: Oh man, that’s impossible and every time I’ve ever answered this question the next day a huge one I wish I had mentioned always pops into my head. Also I have influences from every other instrument and mediums beyond music that I try to bring to all the creative endeavors I do. I could go on for way too long so I’ll leave it just to drummers for this list. I’m going to name a couple that come to my head and try to hone in on the major part of their approach that has inspired me. This list is not in any order of importance because I can’t categorize things like that in my brain. I guess one major part of anybody I mention on this list is that they have a very unique style and sound which I think is an immensely important part of any instrument or any form of art. So let’s just assume that’s a given for any of these drummers and I’ll just list some of the specific things I really try to take from these players. Danny Carey of Tool– this guy writes some amazing and hugely musical drum parts that are very expressive, dynamic and memorable over the odd and weird metered riffs of tool. Danny and Tim Alexander of Primus are both great examples of drummers who play heavy music in a more musical way then a lot of more atypical heavy metal players. Both those guys were huge for me in illuminating how to creatively and tastefully use a double kick pedal without losing the groove. Also, Danny’s drum tones and tuning choices were hugely inspirational for me. All of that stems straight from Jeff Ocheltree, the world’s greatest drum tech who was the mastermind behind John Bonham’s famous tone. Matt Garstka of Animals As Leaders. This guy in my opinion is one of the greatest to ever come along. His wealth of information, unbelievably enviable work ethic and approach has resulted in a new generation of players like him who really take tone, writing, and technique to a new level. JoJo Mayer, obviously. This dude has been an inspiration for me as long as I can remember having access to the Internet. A trailblazer in technique and tone, as well as blurring the lines between man and machine. Jojo has been breaking new ground for over 30 years and he and his band Nerve continue to make awesome music that inspires musicians of all types. Ilan Rubin, of Nine Inch Nails and more. This dude is young and has already had a greater career than a lot of people could hope to ever have. That’s because he’s a top notch multi-instrumentalist and phenomenal drummer. He clearly channels the energy and tone of Bonham as well (who’s omitted from the list because obviously he’s an inspiration to almost any drummer these days whether they know it or not). Rubin’s unorthodox openhanded style, unbelievably awesome drum tone, killer groove and killer chops make him someone to keep an eye on. He also fronts a band called The New Regime as guitarist, singer and songwriter. He’s also a synth geek like me too. Very inspiring to pursue multiple avenues which all come back to creating a better artist at the core. Obviously Buddy Rich and Tony Williams because these guys are swaggier than swag itself. They both set a benchmark of vision paired with technique that people hope to achieve within their lifetime. I could name ten more right now, and probably more than that tomorrow, whom I’ll wish I had included on this list.
SF: What bands has Ross Jenssen played with in the past that you enjoy performing with, and what groups do you want to share a concert bill with in the future?
JJ: Considering we’ve kept our live performances to a minimum as to not market ourselves in the wrong scene, we’ve really only played with bands that we like and think make sense to play with. The main example would obviously be lespecial. We’ve known and worked with those guys forever throughout the multiple iterations of bands Brian and I have played with. Their unique unabashed approach has openly been a huge inspiration to us and we look forward to sharing the stage with them in the near future. We feel that power in numbers with like-minded acts is hugely important in creating a new scene for bands and fans who are sick of having to adjust to fit into something that exists already. Another cool act that has popped up recently is In-Flux from New York City. These guys are a really forward-thinking drum and guitar duo who also utilize technology in cool ways to create heavy weird music we really like. They’ve recently been working with Georgia Tech on a robot that improvises with them! Look them up, they’re pretty awesome. We’re also going to be playing with our homies Consider The Source, who are all absolute monsters at their respective instruments and are gaining serious traction in the correct market for their sound. I would point to them as an example of a band that may have invested their energies in the incorrect demographic when first getting off the ground. This is not in any disrespect to them, and has happened to a lot of bands that I know personally or have looked into. It’s very easy to have happen when someone who’s booking or managing a band and really believes in them mainly has connections in a different scene then the band is appropriate for, but is still able to get them gigs in those markets. It just makes it way more of an uphill battle than trying to find the right people first, which is much easier now with social media. It’s great to see this type of music gaining traction all over the place and to see a band that deserves recognition like CTS getting more of it each day. We really appreciate them picking us for their show in NYC and we’re going to bring the heat to deliver a memorable performance. Also, it would obviously be a huge accomplishment and goal to play with any of the bands I mentioned in the earlier question, who we really feel are breaking ground and crushing it globally.
SF: Ross Jenssen has some pretty exciting shows coming up over the next few months! Tell us what you have scheduled so far in 2017.
JJ: Touring is not our A1 priority at this point, however, that doesn’t mean we don’t love playing live by any means, and as I said, we have some cool shows with bands that we really like to support the upcoming EP release. We’ll be back with lespecial in Northampton, MA on 2/11, which will be a complete rager. We’re doing an EP release party for the DDM and friends monthly residency in Boston on 2/22, which will also feature In Flux. We’ll be with Consider The Source at the amazing House of Yes in Brooklyn on 2.24. And then again with lespecial for two more dates (as of now) in late March and April. The long-term plan for touring and shows is dependent on a number of things still up in the air with regards to the bigger picture. Our overall goal right now is to just keep writing new songs and producing engaging content that we can use to attract new fans online. We will release individual instrument play through videos of the songs on the EP soon after it’s release as well. We’ve already started recording a string of songs to release as singles in late spring and early summer that will have a more diverse range of sounds and styles as I mentioned earlier. We look forward to releasing those and keeping the content rolling out.
SF: I like to end all my interviews with an open forum. Is there anything else you’d like to share here that we haven’t covered?
JJ: Obviously the main thing I could ask anybody and everybody to do is to listen to the EP, and if you like it please share it and recommend it to anyone else you think may get something out of listening to it. We didn’t do any sort of crowd-funding campaign to make it happen and we’re giving the music away for free on our Bandcamp page (RossJenssen.bandcamp.com). We don’t feel entitled to any money from anybody, but that said, any and all support helps; monetary or otherwise. If it so moves you, we deeply appreciate any and all donations and support to the record, which we will use to keep making new and better music and art. Beyond my personal desires, I sincerely hope that people continuously explore and patronize new and undiscovered artists of all styles – musical and beyond. At one point anybody who’s a big name in their field was once undiscovered and required the belief of someone who simply saw that artist had something the world would benefit from. Go support your local artists. Try new things. Diversify and broaden your horizons. Everybody will gain a lot out of it. Especially in this world where we need to make sure that art and beauty doesn’t go away in the face of the ugliness and hate that seems to be taking over.