Jonah Bayer (Going Off Track, United Nations, Sound Advice)

Interviews | Jul 31st, 2014

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In April, Jonah Bayer gave a TED Talk titled ‘Living Without A Roadmap.’ In practicing this philosophy on a daily basis, the Cleveland native has lived a life that many can only daydream about. Some of his various titles have been, or are, Music Editor for Alternative Press, Head Writer on Steven’s Untitled Rock Show, freelance journalist, co-creator and writer on comedy web series Sound Advice with Janessa Slater, and playing guitar for United Nations. Before heading out on tour with UN, Jonah was kind enough to answer a number of questions about all of his projects.

In April, you gave a very inspirational TED Talk about ‘Living Without A Roadmap.’ How did you come up with the concept of your speech?
It took me an insanely long time to pull together the concept for the talk because I wanted it to be about something I felt like I was an “expert” on but also didn’t want it to seem dull or pretentious. A lot of people ask me for advice on how to do something similar to what I do today with music or writing, so I did a lot of hard thinking about how I got to where I was and realized that I really never had a plan. At first that was a little disillusioning but then I realized that if I embraced that and used my personal experiences to illustrate how doing what you love can lead to some type of “career” even if you didn’t realize it at the time, that could actually be an interesting talk unto itself.

Do you have plans to expand that concept, and stories of the road you have taken, into other formats such as a book or podcast?
I actually contributed a story about the road to Chuck Ragan from Hot Water Music’s book “The Road More Traveled” a few years back and feel like through having a lot of friends on the podcast that I’ve toured with I get to talk about a lot of them incidentally but I don’t really have any plans for a book right now. It’s always been a huge dream of mine to do something like that but it’s also extremely difficult for me to write about myself sometimes and think it will be interesting to other people. You never know, though, maybe down the road if the right concept and level of interest presented itself it would be a fun experience. The amount of work it requires does seem incredibly intimidating, though.

You play in the band United Nations. Are you allowed to officially say that now? For a while there were alleged members of the band.
We’ve always liked to have an air of mystery to United Nations. I started playing with Geoff (Rickly) when I moved to Brooklyn about seven years ago and early on we had a lot of different members touring and recording with us. I would say in the last couple of years we have really developed a solid lineup and that aspect of the band is less of a “mystery” now since we are touring, putting out records, doing press, etc. Lukas Previn has been playing with us since before our first show and he’s an incredible guitarist—and our rhythm section of David Haik and Zac Sewell are from Pianos Become The Teeth who are one of my favorite newer bands, so I’m really proud of the current iteration of the band. It’s also been fun to play with a lot of different people live and on record over the years but it’s kind of nice having a solid lineup of people who inspire you as well.

For playing such abrasive music, the band has a wicked sense of humor between song titles and even the name of the new record, the Next Four Years. Is there a conscious effort to confront these sacred ‘punk’ cows but in the most amusing way possible?
A lot of United Nations is tongue-in-cheek, especially when it comes to the nature of commerce or punk itself (or often the intersection of those two things). There is definitely a conscious effort to mock the things that we see as being hypocritical whether its bands being overly precious about their art or the government attempting to sue a screamo band over their name. That said, we are extremely serious when it comes to the art and music on the releases, they just tend to have a healthy dose of social commentary which I think is needed in a world that sometimes takes itself way too seriously.

There are a couple of limited edition box set options for the new record. Why did the band decide to do such comprehensive packaging?
We have always been vinyl fans and fans of cool packaging and once we hooked up with Temporary Residence we knew we wanted to do something really cool since they have done amazing vinyl packaging for Explosions In The Sky, Envy, etc. Jeremy deVine who owns the label is an incredible dude and helped us conceive the packaging for the deluxe box set and actually had all of the different parts pressed. Then some of us and our friends came to office and helped assemble them. It was a super fun process and we had no expectations that they would sell out as fast as they did. The only downside was lots of paper cuts from folding the cease-and-desist letters around the cassettes.

The second season of your web series, Sound Advice with Janessa Slater, also recently premiered. How has the response to this season been so far?
The response to this season has been incredible from the premiere with Drake to our latest episode with Travie McCoy. A definite highlight for me was working with one of my favorite bands ever, NOFX, who don’t do a ton of press and were so on board with all of the concepts. I also loved working with the girls from Haim and Tegan & Sara because I feel like Vanessa (Bayer of Saturday Night Live) had a great connection with both of them—oh and getting Jack from fun. to come make a cameo as an intern was also super fun. The whole experience has just been so great and in a similar vibe to UN, I think a lot of these artists who can be perceived as serious really enjoy being goofy and showing that side as well so it’s a really cool medium in that sense.

How far ahead do you and Vanessa plan out the season in terms of what guests you want on the show and how you then write for those episodes?
The most difficult thing about Sound Advice is working around Vanessa’s schedule as well as a band who may only be in town for a day, so we really just spend a lot of time coordinating with bands when we can try to tape and hoping it works out. We generally write down a bunch of ideas but then there is a healthy dose of improvisation that occurs as well and usually that’s where the best moments are born. Our director Pete Schutlz is a writer for SNL’s “Weekend Update” (and a fan of punk rock) so he’s great at coming up with hilarious ideas on the spot and everyone at our production company Above Average have been so supportive of our ideas and help make it look and sound great.

Is this your first foray into comedic writing? How has that transition been from your journalist past?
I guess technically this is my first foray into comedic writing, although I include a lot of puns and jokes in my writing. I think a big part of this transition happened when I was writing “Steven’s Untitled Rock Show” for Fuse because Steven really let me express myself and tell jokes on camera, especially when it came to giving the bands he was interviewing who I was friends with a hard time. I also think the transition wasn’t too bad because “Sound Advice” is still very music-based as opposed to something that’s totally foreign to me writing-wise.

How did you find your comedic voice? Do you find it to be something you are honing every time you write?
I feel like Vanessa and myself have a very similar comedic sensibility which can basically be described as “incredibly juvenile without being mean-spirited.” Some of my favorite comedians are Neil Hamburger, Jon Wurster & Tom Scharpling and that type of sort of nerdy record guy humor. But on the other hand of the spectrum I’m a huge fan of the Deathsquad podcast network and guys like Joe Rogan and Duncan Trussell who explores areas like technology and psychedelics in addition to their humor. With “Sound Advice” the tone is pretty clear so there’s really never any problems with finding the voice, we just want to make sure that the bands are totally on board first so that they don’t get offended or anything but to date everyone has been so amazing and open to all of our ideas. I feel so lucky to be able to do this.

What is the story behind Janessa’s ex- Darrent?
Great question. Darrent and Janessa have a very complex and sordid relationship but hopefully we will be able to explore it more in the future. If you need to buy a used car, I can get you his information.

You recently teased a project that you and Chris Conley, from Saves the Day, are working on? Are you allowed to say anything about it yet? If not, is there anything that you can tease us with?
I actually just saw Chris in Cleveland over the weekend when he was at the APMAs. (I was working as script supervisor for the show.) Chris and I have an idea we’ve been discussing for a few months that I can’t fully announce yet but if you enjoyed Going Off Track #78 where the two of us discussed meditation and spirituality extensively, this should be right up your alley.

Going Off Track is one of the best music-related podcasts, period. What is next for the show?
Thank you! Good question. Right now we feel so lucky to be able to put out a new podcast every week and record at the amazing Converse Rubber Tracks studio. We have done four or five live podcasts and I would like to do another one of those in the fall after United Nations gets back from tour. Aside from that there are still a ton of guests that we would love to have on that I’m currently working on. We would also like to maybe get a sponsor down the road so that we could travel and do some other fun stuff but the priority for me right now is really just making sure we can continue our 118-episode-long streak. Wow, that’s crazy to think about.

You have been an outspoken fan of many shows and podcasts such as the Joe Rogan Podcast, Battlestar Galactica, and Bar Rescue. What other pieces of pop culture have you been obsessed with these days?
I mean you pretty much nailed it. I heard today one of my favorite bands Bottomless Pit are taking a hiatus so I’ve been listening to them a lot. I also just watched the final season of the American version of The Office and really enjoyed how dark and fucked up it was; I feel like they finally retained some of the elements that I loved from the original U.K. version. Speaking of which I love all the “Summer Heights High” stuff and think HBO has been creating some amazing content lately, even if two of my favorite series’ “Eastbound & Down” and “Hello Ladies” are both over. I actually don’t have cable anymore so I haven’t really been up on a lot of reality programming but that is probably honestly for the better. Oh I’m also a huge fan of the Web series “High Maintenance” and having the creators, Ben & Katja, on the podcast last year was so cool. I guess I would say that I really like humor that sort of has a dark edge to it such as movies like “Very Bad Things” or “Happiness.” Or stuff with aliens.

With so many different balls in the air, is there something that has been gnawing at you to try or learn that could be the next thing you are involved with?
Oh man, so many things. I have been trying to teach myself banjo for the past six years to the continual disappointment of my friends and neighbors. I also really want to try to revamp my own personal Web site so that it doesn’t look like it was designed like a toddler. I guess for me the biggest challenge is finding a way to balance all of the projects that I do as a labor of love with the writing that I do for publications and labels that actually pay the bills. Ultimately I just feel so lucky to be able to be working on all of these exciting projects that I’m passionate about and if the worst part of my day is interviewing a band that I’m not really a fan of, that seems like something that is ridiculous to complain about. If you ever hear me doing that, please slap me. You have my permission.

Going Off Track
United Nations Twitter
Sound Advice with Janessa Slater

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