Friends since in middle school, Evan Friedell, Aaron Gorsch and Packy Lunn make up the three-piece indie rock band—suffused with synths, electronics and honest lyrics—known as Jimkata. After releasing six studio albums and building a successful grassroots fanbase, the group took a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, and now mark their return to music with their seventh LP: Bonfires. Read on for our interview with Jimkata, where we talk songwriting and break down the new record.
What initially drew you to music and songwriting?
Evan Friedell: I always had music in my brain, for as long as I can remember, I would kind of entertain myself as a kid—the stereo would turn off but the music would keep going in my brain, and I would dance around the living room. There was always a soundtrack in my mind. And that didn’t really occur to me as a songwriting thing ‘til later in life. My parents wanted me to take piano lessons and I just wasn’t into the structure of it. I was at a point in my life where I was quitting a lot of things. I got this little acoustic guitar and took a couple of lessons and sure enough, I fell in love with it and started advancing on my own. Stealing chords out of the back of the book and trying to pick up things by ear. One of the first things I ever learned was “About A Girl” by Nirvana—that’s where I learned they tune their guitars a half step down.
Started there, just started picking things up by ear, finding tabs, learning songs, and then naturally just writing on my own. I think I was processing a lot of stuff. My little brother died when I was a kid, and I started writing in a journal as a teenager, and that turned into songwriting and deep reflections on life and all that. Eventually, I started writing some tunes.
When you go to process and reflect and turn those thoughts into music, what does that process look like?
Friedell: I don’t know that I have a process. It kind of comes out of nowhere. Usually, I’ll just get an idea throughout the day, or it could be some words and a melody, it could be a beat. I’ll try to track it down in my phone. If I have the time, I’ll go right to the guitar and try to pluck out whatever’s in my head. In more recent years, I’ve gotten more into production—I’m a little more familiar with having that idea and being able to go right into that software, music production program, and creating the whole thing. Usually starts with a little idea. Sometimes, it just comes out as the whole thing—that’s always awesome. Or it could come from experimentation.
Bonfires marks your seventh full-length—when you go to write a record, what does that look like? Do you just start writing songs or do you start with a theme or framework in mind?
Friedell: This one, I mean usually thee’s a lot of songs and then kind of trim it down to the ones that seem the best or the most fully-realized ideas. This one, in particular, I had more songs ready than I’ve ever had before, ‘cos we had been taking a break. When I finally was getting around to presenting it to everybody, it was easier to select. We started collaborating as a group again—from there, we just kind of start working on a selection. We picked those 10 songs and just go from there, start honing them, sharpening everything. And then, by the end—it’s usually not ‘til we’re in the middle on it, if there is a theme, what is the theme—‘cos it comes from a deep place. It’s not necessarily that I sit down and go ‘I want to write an album about this.’ It’s just like, you look back and go, ‘shit, I guess that’s how I was feeling,’ and then you sew a thread between everything.
What is that thread that connects this record?
Friedell: I think one of the threads is uncertainty and dealing with that as you grow older. When you’re coming up and you’re a little younger, you follow the rules, and then all of a sudden you get to a point in your life when you realize there are no real rules. That is confusing, personally in life, when figuring out how to navigate your life, but also, in the world at large, it’s been a weird time—under the last President and the circus of that and the instability that caused, and then obviously going through the pandemic—it just seemed like there was a lot of chaos and uncertainty.
And for me, my personal life at the time, having pursued music so long and then we stopped doing that, Jimkata as a band, to get to a point where you feel disenchanted and burned out and then you go back to regular life, this identity as a musician is really hard to go back to, figure out what the hell am I doing. Who am I? What is this? That uncertainty, processing that was a big part of it.
I want to jump into the record, starting with the album art—how did that design come together and how does it represent the music?
Friedell: We worked with an artist named Mike Tallman—first of all, this go around, this album, we really wanted to be more intentional visually than we had ever been before. That’s why we did ten music videos—we went all out. We realized that, as a band, we had mostly performed live and released studio works, but we had maybe a couple of music videos out that were okay, and we just realized we wanted there to be more entry points for somebody who doesn’t know who we are to see a video and say ‘I’m gonna check this band out.’ Up until now, it had always been, ‘you need to see us live,’ and that’s why we have such a great fanbase of people that had seen us live so many times. That’s fantastic. But it felt like it was this little secret. We were like, we need to make ourselves a little more accessible. And also just artistically, express this music in a visual way.
Back to the album artwork, I thought a lot about symbols. We want something that’s going to stick out. We almost got a little too literal with that, and then I kind of realized I needed to relinquish some control. I was out in L.A. and there was this tree, it was a coral tree, I think it was called, and it has these really cool red blossoms in the Spring — it’s on the cover of the album in the tape. I wanted to do something that symbolized a rebirth, that symbolized bonfires with it literally being a fire. I think the tape image and reel came about from Mike—we like that, too, ‘cos another theme of the album is playing with nostalgia, and we like the idea of this tape which symbolizes the nostalgia, and also the reel spilling out—it felt metaphoric. In life, you’re going around this wheel, you think you’re making a tape; you’re really just spitting out the shit behind you. Once these ideas combined, we were like ‘oh yeah, that’s it.’
“Weight Of Paradise” is really interesting, lyrically—what inspired that song and how did it come together?
Friedell: I don’t even remember exactly where the original thing started. It was an idea in my head, melodically. I started to jot it down, and then I think at one point I started falling asleep and those words came to my head: ‘you’re feeling the weight of building your paradise.’ And that spurred the rest of the song. I think the meaning behind that being, I think everybody feels that pressure when you’re striving to survive and get by, or maybe chase some dream in whatever form that takes shape, and every once in a while when you’re feeling the stress, it’s like ‘hey, chill out, you’re feeling the weight of building your paradise.’ I just like the contrast of those two things.
“Hard Headed” has a really interesting contrast between the first verse and chorus, and is again, full of impactful lyrics—‘when the reaper is calling my name’—what’s the story behind this track?
Friedell: That one, there was a period of time when I got really into history documentaries. My way of kicking back and relaxing would be cracking a beer and watching a Vietnam documentary. I found it to be inspiring hearing some of these stories from some of these soldiers. It was the first time technology was available for people to call home, from where they were, so they were playing some of these recordings. Something about that snuck into my brain somewhere. I probably had the chorus for it first. I’m a fairly stubborn person, so perhaps that has something to do with that. Being stubborn is sort of the chorus—basically, you’re pushing forward no matter what. Lyrically, the verses are more of an exploration of that feeling of being lost, not knowing where you are, being in a foreign place, and figuring out how you’re gonna make it home.
The last track on the record, “Writing On The Wall,” has a different sonic feel to it than the rest of the album—between a longer instrumental opening and a production on the vocals, it feels different. Can you jump into the song and break down the story behind it?
Friedell: That one started just as a beat that I had. A lot of our songs in the past—and currently still—come to a chorus where it’s like ‘everything’s gonna be alright.’ When you fall down, you get back up. And I just wasn’t feeling that. And this song, I wanted to embrace the darkness I was feeling. There’s this apocalyptic sense in the air right now, and there has been for a while—doomsday preppers and people anticipating the worst. I couldn’t help but feel that and sometimes I still do feel that when I look at the way things are going, and I wanted to allow an exploration of just making it dark and heavy. Obviously, it’s sort of simple, it repeats ‘the writing on the wall’ a lot at the end there. But I wanted to kind of go with that and make it heavier and heavier. As we got in the studio, we had a lot of fun figuring out how to create that musically.
Packy Lunn: I always liked how this kind of demonstrates the whole principle of ‘if you’re gonna say it, shout it.’ At the end, it just repeats over and over again, it gets more intense. We weren’t sure how to end it so we put a lot of effects and made the whole thing go up in flames.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve been getting more into the production side of things—how does that element of the music—synths and layers, etc.—all come together?
Friedell: We’ve always been a fan of layers in music. And we never really made any hard and fast rules for ourselves of ‘it needs to be played live.’ Whatever fits the songs. We had a long process with all of these songs. We all had these demos for a while and were able to produce them ourselves for a while before going into the studio. It’s kind of like just whatever seems to be adding to the song at the moment is good. We’re selective about things, but we really just want to create bigger sonic palettes and textures.
Lunn: We grew up with bands like Radiohead. When you think about a band like that, what I always liked about their records was imagining how would they even pull this off live. I think we’ve always enjoyed that challenge. With every record, it’s got progressively more technical. With this one, in particular, we had a lot more time in between records—so they just came into the studio a little more baked than the other ones did. We had a higher starting point than we did on any other record as far as what we could do, production-wise. A lot of the creativity came from there because we had so much time leading up to it.
I know the songs were written before the pandemic really started, but what kind of impact or influence did the pandemic have on the record?
Friedell: We decided to do this and we decided to go for it as a band, so the excitement began with that a while ago. And eventually, we started building a little timeline. It just kept getting pushed back. The day we were gonna drop the album was the day the pandemic started. So, I’m thankful that we didn’t start before this, especially for us coming in starting cold. Fortunately, we just put the breaks on things, kept working on the music itself and various aspects of that while the pandemic was unfolding. But it created a lot of uncertainty. Does it even make sense to be releasing music when I don’t know if we’ll be able to play a show? It was a really challenging time.
With the record out and live shows possibly coming back, what do you guys have lined up in the near future?
Friedell: We just played our first return show, our first show in over three years, at a big festival. It was awesome. Really joyous energy. Really good to be playing again. That was the first step in the door, and now we’re just gonna keep going. We’re going to be continuing lining up dates for the Fall and next year as well. The plan is just to keep going and get back to playing live.
You can listen to Bonfires here.