It’s been a long and winding road for JEFF the Brotherhood. Started as a pet project between real-life bros Jake and Jamin Orrall in 2001, the band has built a large and fervent following behind their hybridized brand of punk and blues rock. In recent months, they’ve signed a major-label deal with Warner Bros. Records, coproduced a new album with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, and watched said album, this summer’s Hypnotic Nights, hit No. 1 on the CMJ Album Charts. Ask the Orralls, though, and they’ll be the first to tell you that JEFF’s success was no overnight endeavor. This Wednesday, October 17, the band heads into Santa Barbara for a show at Velvet Jones. I caught up with Jake to talk touring, triumphs, and the slow growth of JEFF the Brotherhood.
What did the early days of JEFF the Brotherhood sound like? It was pretty weird, lots of experimentation and noisy shit. It was more of performance art when we first started, mostly because we didn’t know how to play our instruments. Then it changed when we started touring.
Was it hard to transition to life in a tour van? Well, when we first started touring in 2006, we could do like one tour a year. We booked it all on Myspace and were playing in kids’ basements. It wasn’t until 2009, when we put out Heavy Days, that we decided to start touring as a job. But that meant moving out of our apartments and putting our shit in storage and quitting our jobs to live in the van. We self-booked from the road for eight months before finally getting a booking agent, and then we just told him to keep us on the road the whole time. We slept on couches for another 13 months or so, and then we started making enough money to rent a space in Nashville again. And that’s not saying much. I mean, in Nashville you can get a really nice place for $250 a month.
Why play so many shows? Well, we’re not as good at making albums as we are at playing shows, that’s for sure. [Laughs.] The reason we do it our way is because we have to survive as a band, or we did. Now we have Warner Bros. backing us if we want to make a record, which is great. But up until the last album, we only had what we could make on tour. We didn’t blow up overnight. The kind of bands that get to go in the studio and take three months to make a record, they’ve got someone backing them. Then they go out and do a few tours because there’s a lot of buzz behind them, but if you don’t lay the groundwork — if you don’t lay a solid foundation of working hard and building a fanbase — as soon as someone pulls the funding, you’re fucked, you’re done.
Do you look back fondly on doing the DIY thing? I don’t think I could even go back to touring in the van, doing 260 shows a year, playing in basements. I like having a Sprinter; I like the air conditioning; I like to watch movies on Netflix, you know? I put my time in. [Laughs.] But it’s so much fun when you first start out; it’s like you’re on an adventure every single day, especially when you’re self-booking tours because you have no idea what’s going to happen. Like, we were lucky if we made $25 and we got a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. That was the best feeling ever.
How did the Warner Bros. deal shake down? It was huge. We were running our own label and were living comfortably off of that. A lot of other labels were asking us if we needed any help, but it wasn’t until Warner Bros. that we really felt they could offer us anything. They had this great attitude: They didn’t really care about signing us or not; they just wanted to be a part of it because they believed in it. We eventually worked out a deal, which took like a year, because we really wanted to know what they were going to bring to the table.
How did you guys hook up with Dan Auerbach? We had met before. He came to us and wanted to do some tracks in his studio, which is down the street from my house. We had two weeks blocked off already, and when we went to check out the studio, we were so impressed that we decided to do the whole thing there — and we had a really good time. [Laughs.] Most of the time we spent with Dan was just fucking with each other and joking around.
How did he fit in as a coproducer? We had already written [the album], and we already had production notes for every song, so there wasn’t too much room for him. It was a coproduced thing, but he was really there to help us get really good sounds and good vocal takes. His role was to be there to bounce stuff off of. Every other record we’ve made was just us saying, ‘’This is what we’re doing, and it’s our way,’’ and you can get lost in that and miss out on a lot of really good ideas. I’m definitely looking forward to working with a producer again.
Are you happy with the result? Yeah! We’ve done most of our records for next to no money in three days. Honestly, we’ve always wanted them to sound the best that they can, but I think this was the first time we made a record that actually sounded like we wanted it to sound. It was really exciting.
JEFF the Brotherhood plays Velvet Jones (423 State St.) on Wednesday, October 17, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 965-8676 or visit newnoisesb.org for tickets and info.