Quit law school, join a band: The return of the Jealous Sound
Blair Shehan of the Jealous Sound had just screwed up a portion of his LSAT sat exam when he realized he’d made the biggest mistake of his life. Not on the test, mind you. But the fact that he was sitting in an exam room in Orlando, Florida in his mid-thirties trying to become a lawyer at all.
“I went and told the proctor I couldn’t finish," he said. “After that I went and bought a guitar from a guy in Jacksonville and started to drive back to L.A.”
It was the start of correcting what had been a nearly decade-long diversion for Shehan, whose band the Jealous Sound has occupied an important niche in the L.A. rock scene -- an emo-informed quartet that the city’s cool kids got behind. Its new album title, “A Gentle Reminder,” is sly and a bit self-effacing: fans could be forgiven for forgetting about them during that nine-year gap between albums. This new batch of songs, some of which they'll play at The Satellite on Tuesday, isn’t gentle at all.
In 2003, the Jealous Sound released their debut full length “Kill Them With Kindness,” built on the guitar-entwined bloodletting of early Sunny Day Real Estate. The record made it to Spin’s Best of the Year List, and the band’s ear for melody and heartfelt catharsis seemed poised to make them stars alongside peers like Death Cab for Cutie and Jimmy Eat World.
Until it didn’t. Burned out after heavy touring, Shehan moved to Las Vegas for a change of scenery, planning to commute to L.A. as needed. He felt disappointed in his new songs. The Jealous Sound released a short follow-up e.p. in 2005, but one day in the studio, he had something of an epiphany both heartening and sad at once.
“I came out of the booth and told our bassist John, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I felt so bad for everyone else in the band for what they’d put into this,” Shehan said. ‘But John told me ‘If you can’t do it, it’s okay’.”
For Shehan, who had been a touring rock musician full-time since breaking through with his first band Knapsack in 1993, the idea of quitting music was somewhere between utterly refreshing and a major identity crisis.
“Being in a band full-time is a funny thing if you’re in it for a long time. It takes away everything else in your life -- there’s no security, no financial future, no family, no prospect of raising children, it prevents all that,” he said. “So at first it was really nice! I could finally relax.”
But that sense of stability didn’t last long. Shehan admitted that he let down a lot of friends by staying out of touch after the move, and that Las Vegas was a surreal, isolating place to try and start a new life. His marriage ended soon after, and he was left with no band, living in a city synonymous with dashed hopes and feeling, as he put it, ”absolutely crushed.”
After unwinding from the stress at his parents’ house in Montana, he moved to Florida to start anew, yet again. An environmental lawyer friend convinced him to give the law a try. But faced with the actual prospect of a stable, professional-class life without playing music for a living, Shehan beat the late-thirtysomething odds and moved back to L.A. to start his band again.
He picked an auspicious time to do it: his friend Nate Mendel, the bassist in Foo Fighters and a founding member of Sunny Day Real Estate, asked the Jealous Sound to open their 2009 reunion tour. After a years-long hiatus and deep personal wounds, Shehan’s first tour back was in front of the band’s largest audiences to date.
“It couldn’t have been cooler, but it was daunting. The first show was in Canada and my legs were wobbling,” he said. “But when you get to that ridiculous size of venue, like in New York where it was 3000 people, you just have to take ten minutes of quiet time and go, ‘Okay, lets do this’.”
The tour convinced him that he was finally at a place to record a new album. After a near decade of tumult, divorce and soul-scaring glimpses into a life without music, “A Gentle Reminder” is a deeply optimistic rock record. It has every bit of the raspy urgency of his band’s debut, with big dynamic swings and peals of open chords that make songs like “Beautiful Morning,” “This is Where it Starts” and “Perfect Timing” feel redemptive. They recorded the album at the Foo Fighters' Studio 606, with Mendel playing guest bass.
There are some allusions to his Vegas divorce – on “Promise of the West,” the line “I wasn’t strong enough for both of us in this godforsaken place” is a pretty clear summary of that time. But, "Kindness" was filled with tales of medical trauma and codependency, “Reminder” asserts that one can find stability alone.
“The theme of ’Kindness’ was ‘We’re a mess, but we have each other.’ The whole idea of this record is ‘I’m okay because I have myself,” Shehan said. “When I left L.A., I was kind of squirrely and left a lot of things unattended. Now I’m handling things and learning to live life in a different way. I want to do the right things.”
Or course, a lot’s changed in music since the band’s debut. In a boom time for electronica, r&b, pop and experimental music, it’s somewhat unfashionable to be a four-piece rock band singing earnestly about failed relationships. “It’s weird, venues on this tour admit that they’re struggling to find openers that match us,” Shehan said. “But to me, this sound is what I know. Anything else would be inauthentic.”
But at the band’s first L.A. headlining show in over half a decade, at the Echo in December, the crowd was full of ‘90s-survivor emo fans, young faces seeing the band for the first time, and certainly an unknown number of people deciding between law school and starting a band. Perhaps the Jealous Sound’s return will make a few of them go for the latter.