The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus will be performing at the House of Blues in Chicago tonight! I have been a fan of this band since I first saw them on MTV’s “You Heard It First” way back in March 2005. The band caught my attention with their catchy hooks – the kind of melodies that get stuck in your head for days.
I have yet to meet the band in person, but I did get the opportunity to speak with lead singer and head songwriter Ronnie Winter the other day over the phone. Read on to hear what Ronnie had to say about Virgin Records, Howard Benson, and Kelly Clarkson…
- What have you found to be the pros and cons of being signed to a major record label? “With a major, you get to work with people like Howard Benson. Only a major could provide such a huge resource like a superstar producer for us to work with,” says Winter. Ronnie goes on to tell me that “The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus was passed over nine different times by every independent label out there.” With all of the country’s indie labels passing up the chance to sign RJA to their roster, the band ended up signing with Virgin Records (a subsidiary of EMI).
- What made you ultimately choose to sign with Virgin Records? Apparently, Virgin Records was the only label even remotely interested in signing the band. “Indies are very particular,” Ronnie says. It’s true though, most indies are known for their unique niche of artists. According to Winter, RJA did not fit in with any of the indies’ current lineup of artists; therefore, the independents decided to pass on signing the quintet from Middleburg, Florida.
- What would you be doing now if you were not in RJA? Believe it or not, Ronnie Winter worked as a lawn technician for a living before his band got signed to a record label. Growing up in Florida, Winter understands perfectly just how much of a big deal grass is to those that live in The Sunshine State. Ronnie says he would probably be working that same job if RJA had never happened. “It was a pretty cool job,” he admits.
- How do feel your sound and songwriting has changed since you released Don’t You Fake It? “A lot! Half of the songs were from original demos for Don’t You Fake It. That album is more like two albums put together,” explains Winter. Ronnie goes on to tell me that half of the songs were original demos from way back when the band first got together. The other half was a bunch of new songs written for the album once RJA’s recording agreement with Virgin was finalized. “Duke and I were only 19 and 20 years old (respectively) when we began writing our first set of demos, which then became half of our debut record,” continues Winter. The guys were 22 years old when they got signed. Upon signing the recording contract with Virgin, Duke and Ronnie began writing the second set of songs that would make it onto Don’t You Fake It.
- Who are some “under-the-radar” artists that you’ve discovered and are listening to now that the public should know about? “Good question! Nobody has ever asked me that before,” Winter excitedly tells me. Ronnie thinks people should check out Monty Are I, a band that RJA has toured with twice in the past. Another band Ronnie wants people to know about is There For Tomorrow, a band also hailing from Florida. I’m guessing that if you are a fan of Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, you will probably like what you hear from Monty Are I and There For Tomorrow. Take a listen…
- Who did you grow up listening to that has been an influence on the music you like to play now? “My mom liked hair metal – bands like Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Metallica. MTV was always on in our house,” says Winter. By the time Ronnie reached junior high, he was listening to country music. When high school came around, Ronnie got into Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins, Jimmy Eat World, and generally more modern rock.
- What do you find most difficult about songwriting and recording? “Being original is the hardest part,” confesses Winter. RJA’s frontman says he spends the most time writing the lyrics for each of the band’s songs. Lyrics are his craft, and so it’s quite fitting that he puts the most effort into choosing each and every word. “I am a singer, and lyrics are what singers are remembered for. A drummer might be remembered for a drum solo, but lyrics are what singers are most remembered for,” Winter says.
- How much of the business side of the music industry did you understand before signing contracts for publishing and record deals? “I didn’t know anything! People came down to see us. We were just trying to pay our rent and wash our clothes via playing shows,” Winter honestly admits. Ronnie says he had no clue when it came to understanding publishing splits and royalty rates; what they were and what they did, but he learned fast. For those of you out there wanting to start a band, takes Winter’s advice and hire a good lawyer. RJA did just that – the band hired Matt Greenberg as their lawyer and began to learn the business side of the music industry.
- What are your thoughts on shows like “American Idol” and “Nashville Star,” which give young people record deals without them having to work for it? Ronnie Winter honestly admits that he does not watch television. In fact, he doesn’t even have cable! WHAT?! He does, however, play video games. Plenty of video games that is. Also, he will take the time to watch a video clip on YouTube if someone sends him the link, so that he can simply click on the link and enjoy. But when it comes to “American Idol,” Winter brings up Kelly Clarkson as the perfect example of how that show (and others like it) was responsible for bringing her out in front of the public for the world to witness her talent. Ronnie calls Kelly Clarkson a “kick-ass singer,” and I could not agree more! And to think that there would be no Kelly Clarkson if a show such as “American Idol” had not given her the chance to prove that she can really sing. Unlike half of the female pop “singers” ruling the charts these days, Clarkson has some kick-ass vocal chops.
- How do you feel about the whole Guitar Hero and Rock Band game phenomenon? As mentioned before, Winter loves video games. So it’s not surprising that he would like all the video games now that let people live out their dream (kinda) of playing an instrument in a rock band. Winter even went as far as to admit that he enjoys the Nintendo Wii fitness games. Not what you expect from the lead singer of a post-hardcore rock band, huh?
- What is the writing process like for you? Tough / easy? Ronnie claims that the band writes all of the music together. However, after listening to him discuss RJA’s songwriting process, I get the impression that it is mostly Ronnie (lead vocals) and Duke Kitchens (lead guitar) writing the lyrics and melodies (respectively) of each song’s structure. Winter says there are two different ways a Red Jumpsuit Apparatus song is written. 1) Ronnie figures out a melody line, chorus, verse, bridge, etc. on the acoustic guitar by himself. This is how the songs “Face Down,” “Your Guardian Angel,” and “Lonely Road” came to be. The first two tracks are off the Don’t You Fake It record and the third is off the band’s latest effort Lonely Road. 2) The band could be in the middle of having some crazy jam session and Duke (or another band member) comes up with a cool riff. Once the riff is born, Ronnie can then come up with lyrics and a melody that same night. This was the case with the track “Justify” off the Don’t You Fake It record.
- How did you start playing guitar? Ronnie’s adopted grandfather bought him and his brother two guitars and two music/song books. From there, Winter says he was self-taught on the guitar. Ronnie joined his school band for 7th and 8th grade and continued playing in his school’s band until graduating from high school. Even though Winter is not RJA’s lead guitarist (or rhythm guitarist for that matter), he is still very capable of writing a guitar progression for the guys in RJA who are responsible for playing the instruments in the recording studio and on stage. Winter says that Duke (lead guitar) and Matt Carter (rhythm guitar) play all day long, shredding and inventing riffs. As long as Winter can get his point across on the guitar to Duke and Matt, then it’s smooth sailing from there.
- What were the first songs you learned to play? The first song Winter ever learned to play on his guitar was “Glycerine” by Bush. The second was a song by Everclear. Unfortunately, neither Ronnie nor I could remember the name of that particular song. Winter valiantly attempted to sing a little bit of the song for me over the phone. However, with me not being the biggest Everclear fan, I could not “name that tune.”
- What challenges, if any, did you face putting the new Lonely Road album together? “Not many,” Ronnie says. “It was simple and the easiest project we’ve ever worked on.” Winter says that there are usually egos, which get in the way and can make the process of recording an album difficult. Inevitably, Winter has experienced working with “producers who think they’re better than musicians.” Fortunately, there were no egos and no pretentious producers working on Lonely Road.
- What is the major difference between the Don’t You Fake It and Lonely Road albums? According to Ronnie, there are two distinct differences between RJA’s first and second records. First off, there is less screaming on Lonely Road. There are four tracks on Don’t You Fake It that feature screaming lead vocals. However, there are only three tracks on Lonely Road with Winter screaming. Second of all, Ronnie says he likes the vocals much better on Lonely Road; specifically the way the vocals were captured (thank you Howard Benson!). Winter says his vocals on Lonely Road sound live, and not too glossy or polished.
- What was it like working with producer Howard Benson on Lonely Road? “He is super organized and smart. He hired a team of professionals to work with us in the studio,” says Winter. Ronnie then fills me in on a fun fact: the guitar tech whom Benson hired (a guy named Matt) worked on a record for The Cranberries. Way cool. According to Winter, Benson made the recording/production process a lot of fun, which is a very good thing when you’re paying an hourly rate for studio time. Who wants to shell out thousands of dollars and not have any fun while doing so? Not me, that’s for sure…
- How has your life changed since your success? RJA had just returned from touring in Australia, Japan, and Singapore at the time of this interview. Winter said that every day he would see fans from all over the world. “Being able to see that our band has fans all over the world is what makes us realize we’ve succeeded,” says Winter. Ronnie mentioned that later that evening (same day as interview) RJA would be playing in front of 3,000 people with Secondhand Serenade. I’d say that is success! Winter also hopes that critics don’t judge the average person when it comes to asking people if they are fans of Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Furthermore, don’t ask the average person if they’ve heard of RJA. The band has its fans, but those fans are not representative of the mass population.
- What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned from mistakes you have made in your career in the music business so far? Ronnie has learned that musicians go in and out of bands and has experienced this first-hand with his own band. Just this past fall, former rhythm guitarist Elias Reidy left
RJA and new member Matt Carter stepped in to take Reidy’s place. When Ronnie and Duke started RJA back in 2003, they both knew the band’s lineup would be an initial trial run. Some members would stick it through and others would eventually depart and go their separate ways. One regret that Winter has regarding the band’s career is that “there was no budget from the label to record RJA’s sophomore album Lonely Road.” Of course, the record has since been released (February 2009). However, there were three years in between the release of Don’t You Fake It and Lonely Road. That is a much longer span of time than most new bands would like to spend in between records. It’s almost as if for those who wait too long to release new material, they fall off the radar. On the other hand, the artists who have records coming out every one to two years seem to stay atop the sinking ship that is today’s music industry.
- What question about your music has become your pet peeve? Winter wants people everywhere to know one thing when it comes to RJA: “We have not changed our sound.” Ronnie says it is a “misconception that RJA deliberately changed their sound.” Critics seem to believe that RJA went in a specific direction with their new record on purpose. However, Winter wants to clear the air and claim that nothing was done on purpose. “If people would take the time to listen to the entire album, they would realize that both of our records contain really old and really new songs.”