J.D. Reager | Interview | New Album, ‘Where Wasn’t I?’
J.D. Reager is Memphis born and raised punk rock/power-pop multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. Beside his solo albums, he’s also very busy running Back to the Light Records.
The label originally started as a podcast and features artists like Two Way Radio, Tape Deck, Loose Opinions, Joshua C. Travis, Jeremy Scott, Blindcopy, Arthhur and The Subteens. J.D. is a veteran of several TN-based touring and recording acts, including Glossary, Pezz, Two Way Radio, Snowglobe and The Passport Again. He has opened for heroes and appeared on MTV and released two critically acclaimed solo records.
“My songs usually happen spontaneously”
What first brought interest in music? When did you pick up the guitar?
J.D. Reager: My father was a musician, so I guess you could say that I was born into it. Blessing or curse? I’m still not quite sure. But there were always instruments and records around the house. Initially, I was really drawn to 60s pop – The Monkees, The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits were my first big three. Then I got really into Richie Valens and Buddy Holly and 50s stuff. I didn’t start listening to modern music until I was 9 or 10, when I got really into sports and listened to whatever regrettable things my friends were listening to.
I got sucked in for good in 1991 when Nirvana broke. I remember exactly where I was when I saw the video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ the first time. I was sitting on my parents bed watching MTV, because they had cable in their room and I didn’t, and then suddenly I was jumping up on the bed uncontrollably. I got a cassette copy of Nevermind a couple of days later, and the rest is history.
To answer the second part of the question – I have no idea when I would have first picked up a guitar, they were literally always around. But I started as a drummer, actually, because I was really into Micky Dolenz from The Monkees. I wanted to be funny and the star of the band, and still hide in the background somehow. Micky was my first hero, and I got my first drum set when I was 8 or so to be like him.
What was it like growing up in Memphis?
It was probably really weird, but I didn’t know the difference. I’ve always loved Memphis. Knowing what I know now about this deeply beautiful and frustrating city, I can see how growing up here may have reinforced my issues with anxiety and self-esteem – which are quite real. I also had something of a complicated and chaotic childhood, but that’s more of a personal thing and nothing to do with Memphis specifically.
Did you and your friends have a special hangout place where you talked about music?
We didn’t have a treehouse or anything cool like that. My dad had a really expensive stereo system, so my friends and I would listen to records and CDs in our “music room” a lot when they came over. My dad had a crazy record collection. I also remember listening to a lot of music over at my friend Aaron’s house – he had lots of stuff I didn’t have. Shudder to Think, Lard, Pavement – bands like that.
What were some of the bands you saw early on in your career? Did that have any impact on you as a musician?
My first ever show was The Monkees with Herman’s Hermits, The Grass Roots and Gary Puckett in Memphis in 1986. I still remember flashes of it – I was enchanted.
As a teenager, I was allowed to go to lots of “adult” rock shows that most of my friends (I went to a religious private school) weren’t allowed to go to. I saw most of the Grunge-era acts of the 1990s as they swung through town and enjoyed the good ones and the bad ones. I always learned and continue to learn something from seeing other musicians play live. I enjoy paying attention to little things, looking for bits to incorporate into my own playing and writing. Could be anything – a dynamic shift, a chord shape, a drum fill. There’s always something to learn from watching a really good band.
I believe you began in a band called The Henrys. Tell us about it.
Well, my first band was actually called Spitshine – we played several shows at the legendary Memphis punk club Antenna when I was 14-15. But that was a band my dad was in with other adults, they just couldn’t find an adult drummer, so I got the job.
The Henrys was my first real band with people more my age. I was the drummer, mainly. We got signed to a label, made a record and toured as much as we could – fun times, really.
The band released a self-titled album in 1997 for Rockingchair Records.
Indeed we did, I was still a senior in high school when we recorded it. It’s still a perfectly fine record, I guess – I struggle to have a whole lot to say about it, because I was legally a child when it was made and I think everyone in the band would say that we all went on to do much better things in music, both together and separately.
What about Glossary? When did that come about ?
Glossary was several years after the Henrys, roughly 2002-2006. I was also the drummer of that band. I ended up joining Glossary because I moved to Murfreesboro, TN in 2002 to live with my future wife, Jennifer. I needed a band, they needed a drummer – it worked out great until it suddenly didn’t.
If I’m being totally honest, and I suppose I am – my breakup with Glossary was 100% the most painful band breakup of my life. I had dreams about it and them for many years. But I have come to own my part in it and forgive them for theirs. I never hear from them, but that’s cool. They are Nashville to the core, and I’m Memphis for life.
You also recorded with Pezz.
I did do that, I played bass in Pezz in 1998-99. In the short time I was in the band, we played shows with 7 Seconds, Groovie Ghoulies, At the Drive In, Hot Water Music, Jets to Brazil and Alkaline Trio and recorded an album with Steve Albini in Chicago – my first time on vinyl! Mostly good times, haha.
What about Two Way Radio, Snowglobe and The Passport Again?
WHAT ABOUT ‘EM? [Laughs] I’ll try to summarize quickly.
Two Way Radio was a band I joined for a few years after Glossary – I was the second guitar player and did some vocals. We got onto a show on MTV2 called $5 Cover and then made a record that, unfortunately, didn’t come out at the time because of label issues I won’t go into. But it effectively killed the band. We’re still friends, though – and we did finally release the record (‘Succinct Extinction,’ check it out!) ourselves in 2021.
The Passport Again was me and guys from The Henrys, working out of Knoxville this time instead of Memphis, and with me on guitar and vocals instead of drums. My time in this band ran more or less concurrently with my time in Glossary. To this day, I still feel that this was the best band I was ever in, with the most potential – but we did the absolute least of almost all of them. That drove me absolutely crazy for YEARS, but it is what it is. We did just digitally release our EP from back in the day. It’s called ‘Hold On To The Memory’ and I still like it, but more for my bandmate Tommy’s songs than mine.
I think it’s debatable whether I was in Snowglobe or not. I was in a band that was playing Snowglobe songs and made a Snowglobe record, but maybe it wasn’t officially Snowglobe? Not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction line-up, anyway – you probably won’t see me on the podium. But I am on the Snowglobe album ‘Oxytocin’ a whole bunch and I am really proud of my contributions to it.
Would you like to recall working on ‘The Repechage’ and ‘It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This!’?
I don’t mind at all. ‘The Repechage’ was a record made right after Glossary and The Passport Again ended, when I was playing with Snowglobe and Two Way Radio folks. It was the songs I had from The Passport Again that I didn’t feel were given their due in that band, plus new stuff I had put together while working at a studio that I helped run in Memphis called Unclaimed. I’m still pretty proud of it, there’s lots of strings and horns and stuff on it. It sounds like who I was playing with at the time.
‘It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This!’ was an attempt to be myself a little more, rock a little harder. Random fact: it’s the record of mine I play the most drums on! I think I’m the only drummer on that record – there are five or six on my new one.
We premiered your latest album, ‘Where Wasn’t I?’, how much work went into it?
More than I should admit to. I started recording some of it in Memphis in 2016-17, before my wife and I moved to Chicago. But I threw a bunch of those songs away after I got into therapy and quit drinking. The album as it stood was too dark, even for me. My outlook and creativity had evolved. So, I wrote a new half to the record during the pandemic in Chicago, and then finished everything with lots of contributions and help from friends across the country via the magic of Google Drive file sharing.
Can you share some further words about writing, recording and producing the album?
It’s not a process I’d want to replicate: write first batch of songs in a depressed state (that’s NOT a joke about Tennessee, but it could be), move to Chicago, hit rock bottom, get therapy, get sober, lose day job due to global pandemic, throw half of the album away, rediscover creativity, write new batch of songs, finish album mostly through remote collaboration, move back to Memphis just in time for release.
How pleased were you with the sound of the album?
I was and am quite pleased, both with myself and the work of my collaborators, at how we made this collection of songs that were recorded years apart and in all sorts of scattered locations sound like a cohesive thing. It sounds like a band playing in a room, which it almost never is. The fact that it does is a testament to everyone’s innate groove and attention to detail.
I hate to single anyone out, because I genuinely value everyone’s parts of the record – whether they contributed a drum track, guitar solo, backing vocals or the photograph for the cover. But I have to say that it was a great honor to provide the background music for two utterly classic Ross Johnson spoken word spiels. If you aren’t familiar with the Baron’s work – you should be. He is a Memphis music legend, whether he admits to it or not. Check out his current band TURNT!
How do you usually approach songwriting? Do you have a certain mantra or is it just spontaneous?
No specific mantra, really. Though, Tom Petty’s advice “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” does come to mind. My songs usually happen spontaneously, when I have something on my mind that I need to channel. Historically, most of my songs are born from some feeling of regret, anxiety or righteous anger – maybe you can hear that on the records. I’m hoping to be able to start writing again at some point with a more positive framework. I’ll let you know how that goes.
What led to the formation of Back to the Light Records, which initially started as a podcast?
I started doing the podcast (which is currently on hiatus, but returning in April) back in 2020 after the pandemic hit Chicago and I lost my day job. I found a little success there, started working on my own music again, and a few of my friends all made records too – so, Back to the Light became a label also. It’s kind of like Batman, in that it only exists because it has to. In all likelihood, no one else was going to put these records out, so we made it happen.
What are you cooking on the label lately?
My new record came out the same day as the new Subteens LP – ‘Vol. 4: Dashed Hopes & Good Intentions,’ which I also produced and played on. I don’t mind telling you – it’s great! They are a woefully unheralded Memphis band, and I was honored to get to work with them on their first new material in years.
Do you often play live? Who are some of your personal favorite bands that you’ve had a chance to play with over the past few years?
Not as much as I used to. Pezz and Glossary hit the road pretty hard back in the day, other bands did also to a lesser extent. I’m pretty busy with other projects – podcasts, professional wrestling, label stuff – and happy with that.
That said…my band, the Cold-Blooded Three, is still going. We have a show in Memphis next weekend. Never say never.
Are you involved in any other bands or do you have any active side-projects going on at this point?
Definitely! The Back to the Light podcast will return with new episodes starting in April. You can find it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon – all the places. Also, backtothelight.net!
I just started working with a wrestling promotion called Memphis Wrestling – I host a podcast for them called We Are Memphis Wrestling and edit the Substack page, which you can find at MemphisWrestlingPLUS.com!
I love being a shameless self-promoter.
What are some future plans?
Honestly – learn more about the wrestling business, see what happens there. It’s an intriguing world, to say the least. Beyond that, keep making podcasts. Maybe put out a record if I write one or if a friend of mine makes one that I can’t put down. I’m honestly trying not to make any firm plans because I don’t have to and I’m willing to see where my current path takes me on its own. I trust myself and the process.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
My new favorite album is 1000% ‘Turn The Car Around’ by Gaz Coombes. I can’t stop listening to it lately.
Otherwise – I often return to the stuff I’ve always loved. The Monkees, The Beatles, Nirvana.
Classic pop, rock and soul music albums. Punk rock, indie rock, alt-rock – all that stuff until it went to hell in the mid-late ‘90s.
Lately, more blues, gospel and bluegrass – I’m getting old!
My favorite Monkees album is, by far, ‘Headquarters’ – lots of stunning Mike Nesmith (RIP) tunes, plus probably my favorite song Davy Jones (RIP) ever sung, ‘Early Morning Blues and Greens’. It’s out of nowhere beautiful. Actually, one of my favorite concert memories is seeing Peter Tork (also, RIP) sing this in tribute to Davy on his last Monkees tour. But, I digress.
Micky Dolenz, if you are out there, do me a favor and live forever.
Thank you. Last word is yours.
Mike Nesmith once sang, “It cannot be a part of me for now it’s part of you.” And I think that’s beautiful.
Headline photo: J.D. Reager Band and The Subteens