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Jukebox The Ghost revive the forsaken art of piano-driven power pop 

click to enlarge Ghost World: "If anyone's holding up the semi-sarcastic piano-rock approach, it's us."
  • Ghost World: "If anyone's holding up the semi-sarcastic piano-rock approach, it's us."
Ben Thornewill, the affable frontman of the intelligently quirky Jukebox the Ghost, has a hard time coming up with the name of a band that’s successfully followed in the footsteps of piano-driven ’90s hitmakers Ben Folds Five.

“You mean one that’s really filled the void? It’s funny, because that’s something I think about a lot; I mean, Keane sort of leapt to the top, but he plays more synthesizers,” says Thornewill of the British act that he admits was more depressing than either of the two piano-playing Bens. “No, if anyone’s holding up the semi-sarcastic piano-rock approach, it’s us.”

So much so, in fact, that the leader of Ben Folds Five — who, by the way, were actually a trio — took Jukebox the Ghost on tour as his opening act back in 2009, a year after the release of the band’s first album, Let Live and Let Ghosts.

“I think it was some management miracle, or somebody just got wind of us,” says Thornewill of the connection. “We didn’t have any fans — we were playing for nobody — and that was the first time we got in front of people that really, genuinely liked us.”

It was in 2003 at Washington D.C.’s George Washington University that Thornewill, guitarist Tommy Siegel and drummer Jesse Kristin put together a band called The Sunday Mail, which later became Jukebox the Ghost. The trio has been bassist-free since the beginning, both onstage and in the studio. Which is not to say they have anything against bassists.

“It’s been the same guys for 12 years, and we’ve never had a dedicated bass player,” explains the bandleader. “So our guitarist sometimes switches to bass and I play a lot of left-hand piano — or adding synth sounds with one hand — and it sort of fills it out. If we were starting over, maybe we would do it, but it’s just been the three of us and we never really wanted to add anyone else. It’s another mouth to feed, and another voice to have to contend with.”
Thornewill, meanwhile, gets to contend with comparisons to both Billy Joel and Freddie Mercury, whose influences he does acknowledge. “I think when you learn to play the piano, you just sort of sound like that,” he says. “I don’t know, there’s just something about having to sing over the top of a big instrument. I think I get more Freddie comparisons than I do Billy Joel, but it also depends on the song. When I’m singing sort of softer and quieter and prettier, that’s when I get the Billy Joel nod. I mean, look, they’re both amazing singers, very different singers, both clearly versatile. So no complaints, bring it on.”

These days, the trio has no problem headlining its own national tours. They’ll be heading home to Brooklyn, where they now live, shortly after their Colorado Springs date, then hit the road again in late February. “Touring is not a particularly creative time for me,” Thornewill admits, “so I sort of creatively hibernate and store up ideas. And now it’s time to sit at the piano and write, and think about the next album, or the next song, or whatever happens next.”

Jukebox the Ghost’s current tour, meanwhile, features tracks from the band’s five-album catalog, including signature songs like “Good Day” and “The Great Unknown.” The set list will also include tracks from their most recent album Off to the Races, and yes, an obligatory Queen cover.

While the latter may seem like an attempt to cash in on the success of the current biopic, it’s something the band has actually been doing for years, going back to their viral 2014 cover of “Somebody to Love.” Live renditions of “Under Pressure,” “Bicycle Race” and “We Will Rock You” have followed, but this time out, the band is leaning toward a more ambitious cover.

“Not to give it away,” says Thornewill before proceeding to do so, “but we like doing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on shows like this. Trying to play it as a trio is just ridiculous, but we sort of pull it off.”

One cover the band will probably NOT be playing is the one that introduced them to music fans outside of their college enclave. “I don’t think, in retrospect, that was meant to be our introduction into the world,” says Thornewill of Ace of Base’s “Beautiful Life” with just a hint of resignation. “But when we were just getting going, this little record label in New York was putting together a compilation of these indie artists playing some of their guilty pleasures, and that’s the one we chose. And now, it’s out in the world, and has been forever, and always will be.”

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