You hit the Jackpot, baby
There are good local bands, and there is the cream of the crop. With their new album Shiny Things, Rusty Miller and company prove they’re in the latter category.
Today Sacramento, tomorrow the world.
One of the best bands in town, Jackpot, is set to release its fourth CD and, perhaps, take the American music scene by storm. Having already earned a California Music Award and a spot on the New York Times Top 10 albums list for its last release, Weightless, the band joins its fans in eagerly awaiting the new CD, Shiny Things, just out on Surfdog Records through Warner Music’s Alternative Distribution Alliance.
That’s because, between CDs, the band switched labels—and ensuing legal entanglements with former label Future Farmer stalled the new CD in its tracks. Now, however, everything has been settled and Jackpot fans at last can enjoy Shiny Things.
Jackpot consists of Rusty Miller on guitar and vocals, Sheldon Cooney on bass, Lee Bob Watson on guitar and Mike Curry on drums. Placerville native Miller is the main songwriter and founding member of the band.
Because of the delay in releasing Shiny Things, rumors have circulated for the past year about Jackpot’s “new sound” on the recording. Some claim the band has turned in a more pop direction. Jackpot disagrees.
“I think it has to do with the production,” Cooney says. “The recording is better because there’s more people and money behind it. It was the first time we’d ever recorded in a real studio. And when people heard the better recording, they assumed, ‘Oh, it’s a pop sound now,’ since it’s not done on a four-track [recorder] or something"—as were Jackpot’s previous releases.
However, there has been a natural progression in the band’s sound owing to personnel changes. Miller thinks this is a good thing.
“People always want you to stay in the same place,” he says. “I’ve been that same way with bands I like, too. I think we’re going to continue to change and just record and play our songs the way we want to. [But] I don’t think [the new record] is really that poppy or slick.”
Not only did the band work in a full-scale studio for the first time, but it also worked with a producer—two producers, in this case. Initially, Jackpot laid down some tunes with one producer; while the record’s release was delayed, the band went back into the studio to record with another.
“We had the luxury of time,” Curry says. “We did all the basic tracks with David Darling, then the album didn’t come out for a long time. We actually recorded some songs with Chuck like six months afterward.”
“I think one of the people at our label stumbled across this record that Chuck Prophet had produced, thought it was great and thought about him recording some songs with us,” Cooney adds. “Chuck kind of comes from the same place we’re coming from. There were a lot of mutual interests between us.”
On first listen of Shiny Things, the listener is struck by all manner of buzzes and bells, odd noises—musical and percussive—that come to the fore in the sound. But rather than distract, these sounds intrigue and enhance the listening pleasure. On “Tattoos,” you even hear Miller giving the producer instructions: “Hey, turn the drums up.” Miller laughs at one point when some wild-sounding guitar comes in. “Wait a second, I don’t know if I can deal with that!”
“A lot of that was from David Darling,” Miller says. “He used a lot of those old grandma organs, drum machines and stuff like that. But, I also think a lot of it has been there from the start. If you listen to [Jackpot’s second album] Bone-ville, there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on there—lots of clinks and clacks. It’s the same kind of album.
“Nowadays,” he adds, “you do the crazy spacey keyboards and make everything all artsy and that’s the norm, everybody does it. So I’m glad it didn’t get too overboard. I think it’s pretty straight ahead in a lot of ways.”
“It’s like when you buy a new car,” Cooney says. “You get into these studios and they have all these gadgets and you start wondering what this or that would sound like. You’re trying different stuff out and being open to things.”
Experimenting with different ideas in the studio often yields great results. One ballad on Shiny Things, “Bring on the Chimes,” happened when Miller was in the studio, saw a piano set up for another performer, sat down and recorded a song on it.
“Part of it is the spontaneity—trying to capture something that’s happening at that moment,” Watson says. “You can add other stuff, but you still have that raw element.”
Categorizing Jackpot’s sound is difficult, because the band doesn’t really fit easily into any particular genre—which may be part of its appeal. As Miller says, they’re a little bit of everything, weaving together strands of country, pop, folk, indie, rock, funk and metal into one aural tapestry.
“But it’s always rock and roll,” Cooney says. “Look at the Rolling Stones. They did country music and disco music, but how are they thought of? As a rock band. So I think that’s what Rusty’s all about, challenging the listener and doing something different.”
No matter what the sound is underneath, Jackpot’s music can always be identified by Miller’s smoothly creaking voice, crooning lyrics that are quite memorable to say the least. Such lines as “She’s showing us her tattoos and bringing us banana bread” and “They cut off my arms, so I’m driving with my teeth, my love, she waits for me” jump right out of the speakers into the middle of your brain.
Yet, where many songwriters would struggle to come up with lyrics that memorable, Miller seems to have an endless supply. Every song seems to be a string of one great line after another.
For his part, Miller doesn’t seem inclined to dissect where it all comes from. He admits to being influenced by such great wordsmiths as Robyn Hitchcock and Leonard Cohen. He also cops to enjoying throwing those lyrical curveballs that stick in your ears.
“That’s just what I’ve always liked,” he says. “I like those oddball kind of things that maybe you shouldn’t have said. I think you can overanalyze it, trying to find some meaning, but whatever you can push out, that’s what it is.”
For several years Jackpot featured Miller with Eric Bianchi on bass and Dave Brockman on drums. This version of the band is where they really began to gain popularity locally. Later, Cooney replaced Bianchi on bass and eventually Curry and Watson joined.
Yet, through the various personnel changes, Jackpot has always emerged smelling like a rose. Indeed, Miller is of the opinion that personnel changes can sometimes help a band.
“There are things that kind of joggle you up and I think can be really healthy,” he says. “I mean, I loved playing with Dave and Eric, but it wasn’t that big of a shock when we got Sheldon, Mike and Lee Bob. That first practice together was just prime. It didn’t seem weird and we didn’t have to work at it.”
Although Jackpot is recognized for being one of the best bands to come out of Sacto, it sometimes seems like a bit of an afterthought. That might just be a case of taking the band for granted since Jackpot’s been around for six years.
“I think we may get a little bit of that,” Miller says. “We’ve been around for a while so maybe people aren’t expecting too much from us.”
This just may be endemic to many hometown bands. There’s not a lot of mystique left after you see the singer of your favorite band in line at the local convenience store with a six-pack of beer and a package of Oreos.
But the afterthought stigma might also be because Jackpot really hasn’t been seen at too many local AM/PMs lately. Instead, it’s been hitting the road, earning new fans from San Diego to Winnemucca to Bozeman, Montana. It may be a case for some local fans of “out of sight, out of mind.”
And just as one never knows what to expect in Miller’s lyrics, Jackpot chose the incongruous in doing a number of dates on the punk-rock Warped Tour. But leave it to this non-Blink wannabe band to pull off one of the most punk moments at one of the shows.
“In our last show with the tour, they pulled the [PA] faders down on us while we were still onstage and we kept playing,” Watson says, smiling. “The other band started and we were still playing and Rusty was howling like a banshee at the mike. We just kept playing. We became the only punk band on the Warped Tour at that moment. I strongly believe that.”
But though the Warped Tour audiences were predominantly kids wanting to hear cookie-cutter pop/punk bands, Jackpot managed to earn fans at each show.
“I think that’s the great thing about Jackpot,” Cooney says. “We can pretty much play anywhere and get by. No matter what the audience is, there will be some people who will latch on to what we’re doing. There were people at every place we played that were really affected by what we did.”
Watson does admit they got a bit of a perverse kick out of seeing the looks of disbelief they’d get from punk fans when they played. But he goes on to note that whether it’s the Warped Tour or the recent Rock on the River show the band played with Joan Jett and Black Oak Arkansas, Jackpot always garners new fans wherever it plays. That’s primarily due to one main fact:
“We are America’s greatest band!” Watson enthuses, laughing.
Shiny Things goes a long way toward proving exactly that.