Ronnie Winter of The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus
The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus didn’t want to hear about sophomore slumps or the pressure that may have come along with writing the follow up to their gold charting debut album Don’t You Fake It. After many delays, a line-up change and having fallen prey to some of the music industry’s finicky ups and downs they finally entered the studio to start work on their second album Lonely Road. The band (Ronnie Winter on lead vocals, Duke Kitchens on guitar, Joey Westwood on bass and Jon Wilkes on drums) felt nothing but fortunate and were just happy to be making a second album. With the help of all-star producer Howard Benson the results were an album that surprised a lot of people – fans and naysayers alike. The band set out to make a solid rock album, and that they did – from start to finish.
Much more polished than their first, the album makes a bold statement and offers up a track listing that will appeal to a more mainstream audience. Winter’s vocals hit new levels throughout and the songs deliver personal sentiments through Winter’s unique storytelling of war and tragedy, love and hope, and strength and conviction. The songs, at points reminiscent of rock of the early 90s, incorporate everything from brass to strings to a choir.
Often referring to themselves as the underdog, The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus are no strangers to criticism from scenster elitists but that was never a consideration when they went into the studio, they just wanted to make the best rock album they could make. They really explored who they were musically and the end result is an album they can be proud of. The band knew they were taking a chance and would not please everyone, but hey – that’s rock n roll.
Frontman Ronnie Winter recently took some time to talk to us about the new album, the band’s philanthropic endeavors and never selling out.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette | May 2009
The band has referred to this album as a bit of a risk and a bit of a departure, can you expend on the meaning of that?
Mainly a lot of people who didn’t’ know a lot about our band or even listen to our entire last album put us into a “screamo” category so we went out of our way to show people that we are not a “screamo” band. We do have a few tracks that have screaming on them just like Led Zeppelin or The Beatles, not that I’m comparing our success to either of those bands or their songwriting but they’re a good example as far as a singer using a certain technique that people call screaming. Sometimes you get put into the category and we weren’t really happy with that because we’re songwriters in a rock band. We just wanted to make sure that people understood that and I think it’s clear now.
With your latest album, you had some experience under your belts, a little more time and a lot more resources to write and record the album so how did the overall process compare to that of your first album?
Everything has its own little part. I think what probably contributed the most to this album was just the fact that we were stoked in general just to have the opportunity to make it. Everybody knows about the economy now so I don’t have to go into that, but believe it or not, the entertainment industry is probably hit the hardest because the first thing people do is stop spending their money on music and movies because they don’t have the money to spend. So for us, we didn’t know if we’d even be able to make the album. We were already delayed quite a bit, we finally made it into the studio and recorded the songs. We were ready way before so I think because of that it was really easy and we had a really good time. The first album wasn’t necessarily like that, it was actually a compilation of two albums. It was a whole different animal. On that record we were combining six or seven of our demo tracks that we had just written over a two month period. It was very rushed and actually more difficult to make. Lonely Road was a lot more seamless and I feel that sonic-ly you can tell when you listen to it because it seems like we were able to accomplish a lot more because we weren’t stressed out and we were just more prepared.
Howard Benson produced the album and when I’ve interviewed bands in the past that have worked with him they’ve always commented on how he pushes people to be creative and to try new things. Did you have a similar experience with him?
For me it was an all around positive experience, the guy is a genius. Right from the beginning you can just tell that you’re working with a different caliber of a producer. He is inspiring, he’s able to connect with a musician because he’s a really intelligent guy. He’s able to break through the pride issues that sometimes come between a band and a producer. I would say that he pushed us creatively but I think that all producers do that. For us, it was just that he had a good way of communicating with us.
You incorporated a lot of extra musical elements into this album with a string section, some brass, a choir, were those things that you wanted to incorporate into the songs or ideas that were born during the recording process?
It really just directly reflects what song was written at what point in our career. The main song with the most brass instrumentation is Godspeed which is actually a song I wrote when I was still in orchestra playing tuba. That was when I was seventeen and right around the time that Duke and I started playing together. Originally that wasn’t even an RJA song; that was just a song that I wrote. When we decided to record it I was all for it but I wanted to make sure we went all out, full strings and full instrumentation and the band was on board with that and Howard said he had the people to make it happen. It was just one of those things where we had the time and resources but as far as the pre-planning on it we definitely knew which tracks were going to have strings, choir, and horns. Actually another song, Senioritis, which was one of the last songs we wrote for the album, I tracked the baritone horn and my wife tracked trumpet. We played together in high school so that was fun for us. We’re going to do it live.
Oh you are, how exciting! That was my next question. Since you cannot recreate all of these things on a tour, what kind of adjustments have you made to live versions of these songs?
Yeah definitely. We have a keyboard which is able to play string parts. We don’t run tracks. Believe it or not we’re one of the rare bands that don’t, we don’t believe in them. Anything that you see is real. We have strings on the keyboard which is not much different, it’s just someone playing it midi instead of someone playing strings, but either way it’s a human being controlling the notes, so if we hit the wrong note you’ll still hear it and there’s talent involved. It’s not just a computer running through a track. So yes, we’ll play the string parts on a keyboard and the horn parts are going to be played by my wife and our drum tech who is also a jazz trombonist, so we’ve got it covered.
Bands always get asked about the pressure of a follow up album and the effect it has but you guys have always been quick to point out that you didn’t feel any pressure that you just focused on the music and having fun. Do you think you were able to accomplish that throughout?
Definitely. Like I said for us, we were just glad to make a second record. We were faced with the situation where we didn’t know if we’d have that chance. Even though we sold many albums you just don’t know anymore. Things change and labels fall apart and restructure and radio is crazy right now. Stations that use to be huge have turned into stations with one employee and a computer program or they’ve switched formats, the whole game has changed throughout the years. We didn’t feel pressure, we felt gratefulness and we felt excitement, that’s the honest truth. I think it definitely came through on certain tracks but on others it didn’t because they were written before this timeframe.
Represent is one of my favorite songs both musically and lyrically, sound wise it has beautiful rich layers and lyrically it calls people out to stand tall for who and what they believe in, can you give me your personal take on the song?
I’ve always been very direct and inspired by very specific situations and right after we got signed and Face Down was on the radio some of our fans approached us. Fans that had been listening to us for years, because we have been around for years, even though some people don’t like to admit that, but it’s true. Some of the core, awesome kids that were keeping us alive by coming to all of our shows before we were signed, they were like “hey this is cool, I saw your video, I can’t believe you’re on tv…but you’re still cool.” And to me the response to that was that yes, of course I’m still the same guy, my hair’s a little longer and I don’t have to eat ramen noodles every day but that’s about it, nothing else has changed. There was one particular kid who asked me straight out if I was going to turn into a sell out on my next album and forget about Jacksonville and move away to LA or NY…so no, Duke and I bought a house back home, even when we’re off the road we’re still together. We built a studio in our hometown of Middleburg and wrote the whole album there. So Represent is me answering that kid and saying look man, there’s going to be thousands of people who call you a sell out if you chase what you believe in, it’s that simple, so deal with it. We knew that with this album, some people would love it and others would hate it, that it was going to be right down the middle. And going back to the whole “sophomore slump” concept, we knew right off the bat that there would be a percentage of people who would never even listen to the album, and are just going to hate it because it’s a second album. So that’s what the song is really talking about, it’s us saying look, hate the album but we’re still going to write good music.
And then the other aspect of the song, because there’s usually two perspectives to every story, we were right in the studio, when the election was going on, and all of the crazy smear campaigning was going on between the two parties. I always find that very interesting because you always find out a lot of truths about both candidates that you never really knew, so even though it’s dirty, it serves its purpose. So I pose a very simple question, what do you represent? What do you stand for?
There’s more than one song on the album that touch on the complexities of war, Godspeed and Pleads and Postcards that touch on stories from a soldier’s perspective. Do those come from a personal story? Also, have you heard from people in the military who have reached out to you after hearing these songs?
We’re very proactive with the military and there’s a direct story to both songs that I’ll tell you. The first one, I did a project in high school and I interviewed a Vietnam veteran. I just sat down with a piece of paper and a pen, I was a very young, ignorant, headstrong conservative American teenager and didn’t really realize how crazy that war was and the bad things that happened and this guy was actually there. He literally sat me down and told me a pretty intense story of his experiences there. He was on the ground and led a squad. He told me all about it, he showed me pictures of people that he had lost, very emotional things and I wrote a paper on it…I got an A and then I wrote a song about it. That’s one is 100 percent a real story.
For Pleads and Postcards, it was a different experience because it’s a modern song. My little brother is was a chaplain’s assistant in the Army. He served in Iraq, came back and then went back again. I was on tour so it was very hard for my grandparents because we’re use to seeing each daily if not weekly and we were both gone for a long time. They had me flying all over the world touring and they had him in Iraq doing what he loves to do, which is tell people about God but also at the same time being in a place where he had to go out on missions and the road is a dangerous place in Iraq.
With the song Pleads and Postcards we have a few special things lined up but I don’t want to give too much away. We’re going to be doing a couple of cool pro-soldier things. I am a Patriot, I believe in this country, I don’t care what anyone says. I believe in it, I believe that we don’t always make the right decisions but we try to. Different leadership will pull us in different directions but either way the general public still believes in the flag. Pleads and Postcards is the story about my little brother and at that time his fiancée. As I was talking to him, we were comparing the differences between me being on tour and him being on a tour of duty which is two extremely different types of tours, and we were joking about that. It was the first time that both of us had been home together in about a year and a half, which was awesome for both of us. He was telling me that the hardest part of his job was to see these solid soldiers of a man coming in to speak to the Chaplain or him and getting counsel and you would think that it would be about the war but it was often times about the soldier just finding out that his wife left him for his next door neighbor, or a similar relationship issue. Those kinds of things over there just kills those men and women. You never think about that, they’re gone this whole time and have no idea what’s going on back home. We’re so disconnected from this war as it is..and he said that it broke his heart and that was the hardest part for him. Of course that would make him doubt his own relationship even though he didn’t inside but it was hard not to think about it. Now they’re happily married, he made it back, she waited for him, and now they’re married and that’s why the chorus is “I know you’ll wait for me.” I wrote it from his perspective.
Sometimes peoples personalities get hidden within a band, can you tell us something random or unknown about each band member?
Hard one…because we’re pretty open about who we are.
Joey has a tattoo of his girlfriends name on his butt.
John has his own euphemism called the “Wilkes”. He’s the guy that walks into the room after everyone’s been talking about something for an hour and says “hey I have a great idea” – so that’s called a Wilkes.
Let’s talk about your charitable organization, The RJA Guardian Angel Foundation, can you tell us why the band felt strongly enough to start your own organization?
Originally we were contacted by the National Coalition against Domestic Violence after Face Down came out and they said they were getting a great response from people who had heard our song and wanted to know if we wanted to do something with them, so right away I realized the power that we had through our music. That inevitably led to us forming our own organization because we don’t just focus on one issue, we don’t put all our eggs in one basket because we feel like we have a relevant voice right now and we know that we won’t always have that, no band lasts forever. So while we are here and while we are a band we want to try to the right thing as much as possible, so that’s the reason that we started it. We’re not confined to one particular organization; we can help anyone for any reason. Currently we’re raising money for the high school that Duke and I attended together, which is technically where the band started if you want to trace it back. The band needs new uniforms and the country doesn’t want to give them a loan so we’re raising money for them.
For fans that may want to give back in some way but don’t know where to start, what would you suggest?
There’s so many different things they can do. They can check out dosomething.org which is really really cool . It’s something set up by the government which blows my mind. Second recommendation would be to contact and help out any cause that you believe in, whether it be ours or another non-profit organization. We’ve been a part of the Take Action Tour in the past and that’s always tied to some good causes. You can volunteer your time and become a peer to peer contact which is really important. Also just jump on the internet, use your imagination – that’s the power that we all have, think about something that’s important to you and make it happen.
There’s an acoustic cd that the band recorded on their own that was made available at shows in the past, there’s been some talk of releasing it through the label. Has there been any progress on that?
Yes, actually we contacted our label about it. The problem is, it’s all older songs and we now have a new album so the concept that I came up with was why don’t we do additional six or seven songs and release a new album that’s half songs from the old album, half songs from the new album – all acoustic. So the label is open to the idea so we’re currently working on recording 5 or 6 new acoustic tracks which are off the top of my head, subject to change – Lonely Road, Godspeed, Believe, Represent…and a couple more. Then we’ll do another small acoustic tour in small clubs and we won’t advertise much but it’s a cool vibe and we get to hang out with everyone at the show. But yes, it’s a maybe.
Catch The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus Live:
May 7 Baton Rouge, LA
May 9 Dallas, TX
May 10 Houston, TX
May 12 6:00 pm Knoxville, TN
May 15 Norfolk, VA
May 16 Washington DC , DC
May 17 6:30 pm Charlotte, NC
May 19 8:30 pm Johnson City, TN
May 20 North Myrtle Beach, SC
May 24 6:00 pm Orlando, FL
May 27 Des Moines, IA
May 28 Denver , CO
May 29 3:00 pm Salt Lake City, UT
Sep 18 Raleigh