Earlier this month AD caught up with Julie Ocean’s Terry Banks to discuss (among other things) the band’s new LP, Long Gone And Nearly There, the Velocity Girl days, The Undertones, the local scene in Washington D.C., and an open-ended invitation to Teenage Fanclub.
Aquarium Drunkard: So tell me about where the band’s name comes from.
Terry Banks: When we actually formed we called ourselves, for a short time, Friendship Flower Shop, which is a flower shop in Washington, D.C. that I’ve always been kind of obsessed by its name and I knew if I ever played in a band again, I’m going to use that as a band name. We knew all along that it as little bit of a silly name so we decided to go with Julie Ocean instead which is, of course, a song by the Undertones, a band from the early 80s from Northern Ireland. I just really love that song and the other guys were kind of open to using that as a band name. It doesn’t have any other significance than that it’s a really beautiful song and kind of a cool name and we liked the idea that it had kind of an abstract quality, so we went with it.
AD: And that song isn’t even from the most well known Undertones album – it’s from their third album – and it’s not even stylistically what immediately comes to my mind when I think of the Undertones. Is there a reason that it was something a bit out of the ordinary for them that struck you – why were you drawn to that song?
TB: Yeah, that is true. They sort of had this Ramonesy sort of thing for their first two records and that is really kind of a chimey, jangling pop song. And I don’t know if this is true for the other guys – it’s probably true for Jim [Spellman] as well – but I started off as a real jangle pop fanatic. I loved stuff like Postcard-era Orange Juice and early Aztec Camera and the Flying Nun bands and the jingle-jangle stuff I really loved. I played in a band in England who had done records on the Sarah label called St. Christopher and it was really light sort of pop stuff. I really like that kind of stuff. It’s not quite what we do now, though there are some common threads. I really love that song – it’s a short song, only like a 1:45 and I love short songs, we all do – and it just kind of had a good feel to it. We haven’t really thought of a better one. It’s not like we called ourselves Julie Ocean and then two weeks later came up with something we liked better. We liked it enough to go with it and we don’t have any regrets in that regard.
AD: You talk about liking short songs – in my review of the album, I talked about how you only have one song on the album – “Here Comes Danny” – that goes over 5 minutes. Every other song on the album is around the three and a half minute mark or much shorter. Obviously that’s a conscious stylistic decision – why the shorter songs?
TB: Well, it’s not a conscious stylistic decision in the sense that ‘Oh, this song could be 4 minutes but we’ll stop it at the two minute mark,’ that’s just how they come out. When I’m writing something, I’ll get out this little cheesy digital watch that counts in seconds and I’ll play it. And I’m always hopeful it’ll come out more than two minutes because when it’s less than two minutes it sometimes feels like it’s too much of a snippet, so if anything I usually try to push them a bit longer. But they just come out really short. Part of it is loving early Beatles, you know, ’62, ’63, ’64 Beatles – their stuff was really short – and keeping stuff really tight and appealing and not sort of just dragging things just to drag them on. But again we try not to do that in extreme and have songs that are 50 seconds long. We try to make songs that actually have a beginning, middle and end, but don’t wear out their welcome.
AD: You mentioned your bandmate, Jim Spellman. The two of y’all have past connections in that Jim was in Velocity Girl and you played in another band called Tree Fort Angst with another guy, Archie Moore, who was also in Velocity Girl. Is this the first time you and Jim have played together?
TB: It is. He and I have known each other since back in 1990. And we actually met each other through a guy named Peter Cortner who was the singer in Dag Nasty – which oddly enough is also how we got to know Hunter Bennet many years later, who is the bass player in the band – so Peter from Dag Nasty is kind of a linch pin of this. The band I was in with Archie was actually the Saturday People – Tree Fort Angst sort of preceded that. But the Saturday People was a band Archie and I were in – we had an album out on the Slumberland label and a couple of 7″s and a little EP and we played around for two, two and a half years. But Jim and I have known each other quite a long time, as I have those other guys.
But you know, scenes are funny because from the outside they might look bigger than they are. But I have this theory that local band scenes are always the same 23 people cross-pollinating over the course of a few years, whether you’re talking about Chapel Hill or Athens or Minneapolis or D.C. They’re usually pretty small and pretty insular so you get the same people pairing up in different combinations over time and occasionally a new person will come in and expand the gene pool a bit, but it never really gets bigger than a couple of dozen people, I think.
AD: It’s funny that you mention that because bands like you’ve been in with the Saturday People and the bands that Jim was in – Velocity Girl, the High Back Chairs – they’re not identical, but they have a similar ethic and they sort of represent this one vision of D.C. But whenever you think of the broad vision of D.C. you think of the 80s and the hardcore scene – but yet, talking about these scenes being insular, the High Back Chairs was with Jeff Nelson who was in Minor Threat – were all those bands just an extension of the earlier parts of the D.C. scene?
TB: That’s a good question. Certainly two of the biggest musical scense that came out of D.C. were hardcore, the Dischord scene, and go-go, this massive thing in Washington. But oddly enough there always has been this melodic pop thing in D.C. Going back to the early 80s and a guy named Tommy Keene who was a real kind of local hero and he put out a couple of records on Geffen and he’s still going, he’s in L.A. now. But he was this kind of mod, jangle, Beatles kind of guy. That sort of stuff has always been around here – the Slickee Boys sort of had a little bit of that element. And then a few years after that you have the whole Slumberland scene, a lot of which centered around a woman named Pam Barry who has lived in London for the last ten years. But she and I were in a band together called Glo-Worm which was a fake, folky sort of Everything But the Girl kind of thing, at least in theory. And D.C. has always had this sort of step-child jangle-pop, indie-pop kind of scene. It’s way smaller than the hardcore scene, but it’s still there. But our drummer, Alex Daniels, was in a band called Swiz, who were a really big hardcore band in Washington who didn’t record for Dischord but were very much in that scene, and then he was in Severin who actually was on Dischord. And Jim has sort of butted up against that world as well. So yeah, there are some ties between those worlds.
AD: Does D.C. have a particular scene anymore? Is there a style that defines D.C. today?
TB: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’m probably the wrong person to ask. There are certainly a ton of bands. The old bromide about rock dying and music going away and everyone staying in and playing computer games is undercut by the fact that, and I’m sure it’s the same way where you are, there are just more bands than there ever were before. I was talking with a friend of mine the other night – just in Washington alone, there are eight or nine clubs that do – and I hate to use the term ‘indie-music,’ but I’ll call it that – there are eight or nine clubs doing this indie guitar stuff six or seven nights a week and it’s crazy. And you look at the ads and you go ‘who are all these bands?’ I don’t know if it has a stylistic theme. Certainly there are remnants of the Dischord thing. Fort Reno is a big concert series that is sort of tied to the Dischord world – it’s a summer time, outdoor concert series – I think we’re playing it again this year. A lot of the people who were the authors of that sound – and the Teen Beat people and all that – of course the guy from Unrest, Mark Robinson, he’s moved away – but I’m kind of rambling. I don’t know that there is a signature sound the way there was, but there is a lot of sound, there are a lot of bands playing, so I’m sure a signature sound will emerge from that.
AD: How do you see what you’re doing with Julie Ocean as fitting into the continuing body of work that you’ve been in?
TB: We’re just sort of trying to write poppy, appealing songs that get in, make their point and stop. It’s not wildly different from anything anyone in the band has done previously, but it’s come together quite easily and we have a lot of fun doing it. It’s a very stress free sort of band and it’s been sort of a breeze so far, so we hope to make another record and keep doing it for its own rewards.
AD: I’ll use a term people either embrace or they don’t – but does pop music, the sort of direct, catchy sort of thing that is a term I would use to describe Julie Ocean, does it ever go away? Is it something that ebbs and flows?
TB: Well the first question is – this pop thing of guitars and up front melodies and sort of sing-songy vocals – one one hand, if you take pop to mean popular, it’s never really all that popular which is sort of a funny misnomer. But with that said, it never goes away and it always seems to sort of connect with a lot of people, certainly not all people. But it is sort of an evergreen style. We try not to do it in any sort of formalist way, in any sort of slavish way. There’s a lot of sort of pop stuff that’s very cheesy and hopefully we stay very wide of that. Our stuff is pretty energetic and off the cuff. It has a focus on hooks and melody, but it’s also sort of off the cuff – it’s kind of punky, in my opinion – punky and energetic. Hopefully that keeps it from being really precious or sort of wimpy.
AD: Have you set up any U.S. tour dates?
TB: I don’t know. We play in Washington a lot – we’ve played up in Philadelphia. We don’t have any sort of plans for getting in a van and driving to where ever. We’ll just kind of play it by ear. We like playing out and we play a show every two or three weeks and we want to keep doing that. And it might be fun to do a string of dates, but for right now we’re kind of playing it by ear – there are no firm plans for touring. We’re kind of a local band and we may stay a local band, but we kind of get out of town every now and then.
AD: So there’s no pressure with this question then – if you were going to go out on tour, who would be your ideal tourmates? Who would you want to take along?
TB: Oh, well, we’d probably be the ones being taken along. Wow, that’s a good one. Maybe, you know, the Modern Lovers of 1971 could reform. Or Orange Juice circa 1980 could reform, we could get a time machine going. I don’t know. There’s a lot of good stuff. I’d have to think about it. There would be an embarrassment of riches – a lot of choices – ’cause there’s a lot of good stuff happening.
AD: I think you ought to drag Tommy Keene around…
TB: Yeah, that could happen, you never know..
AD: Or, if I may be so bold, Teenage Fanclub. I think that’d be a great pairing.
TB: That would be great. I like them a lot. That would be great. All they have to do is call us.
AD: I’ll see what I can do about that.
TB: Yeah, please, get to work on that. [laughs] I’ll leave it in your hands.
AD: So my last question, since you used the Undertones as the name for your band, is there anything on this first record – and I know you don’t want to put words in the mouth of a dead man – but is there anything on this record that John Peel would’ve played over and over the way he did “Teenage Kicks?”
TB: Well, I don’t know. He might like something like “Bright Idea” which is like 1:36 and ridiculously fast but sugary. We played it way too fast in the studio, we were sort of excited. And when we made the record I thought, ‘God, we should’ve slowed that down.’ Not slowed it down artificially, but just done it over and played it a little more coherently. But now that I hear it, I like that it’s kind of coming off the rails and really kind of amped up. And who knows. He might’ve liked that one, you never know. – j. neas
MP3: Julie Ocean :: My Revenge
MP3: Julie Ocean :: Bright Idea
Amazon: Julie Ocean – Long Gone And Nearly There