After a near breakup, The J.Rawls stop slacking off.
"We were basically a joke," John Majer remembers about his band, The J.Rawls, and their performance at this year's MACRock, the annual spring indie-rock festival in Harrisonburg.
It's early October and we're talking in a corner booth at Chiocca's in the museum district. The air is still warm outside and baseball's postseason is on televisions all around the room. Majer, the guitarist and singer of the group, wears thick black glasses and talks very fast, seemingly without pause, in constant digression and in constant motion with one hand on a beer and the other waving in front of him, as if pulling out his thoughts. Bassist Web Grandish and drummer Brian Stiglich have to intervene at one point when Majer starts talking so fast that even they can't follow him.
He's explaining the band's history leading to the recording of their upcoming "Kid Get Hip" album, and MACRock is the point in the recap where the band is about to become history. Majer remembers feeling like the show would be one of The J.Rawls' last, and he remembers that the band was playing like it, making grating mistakes and performing like a bunch of goof-off losers. What the three didn't know at the time was that the one man who believed in them was standing in the audience looking on.
The man was Ken Chojnacki, owner of their record label, whom Majer calls "a super dope guy." He signed them when they were basically nobodies, right after Lazy Cain broke up in early 2000 (Majer and Grandish were both members). Denali, another big Richmond group that resulted in part from the Lazy Cain breakup, would get a record deal later, but do much more with it. The J.Rawls remained nobodies.
They did it to themselves, the group admits. The whole time Chojnacki thought they were in the woodshed practicing, The J.Rawls were in the bar drinking. Time passed, and Majer and company let things slide. They played badly at poorly booked shows, gave more attention to other jobs and projects, and watched as their touring band disintegrated.
Then Chojnacki called. The band members were surprised to hear that he had attended their show at MACRock. And they were downright bewildered that he wanted them in the studio. That call shook them up. The J.Rawls decided to take Chojnacki's offer. It "saved this group and gave it a focus," Majer says. "It pulled everyone together."
Majer says there were just four words left to say to everyone else in the band: "Get your s together."
They did, getting out of the bar and back into the woodshed, practicing for the next four months leading up to their August studio dates. During that time they also wrote all the new songs for their album, coming up with a distinctly '80s pub rock-tinged sound that's leaner and catchier than the complex math rock they played before.
They play it better, too. In late September, The J.Rawls walked into Hole in the Wall for their first show in five months. Majer says they felt "ferocious, bottled-up," and the crowd responded.
Some people were disappointed. They think The J.Rawls were better when they played their mathy, musician's rock and think the more traditional rock 'n' roll they play now doesn't fly. Majer bristles at this when I bring it up over the phone a few weeks later. "I've heard that around," he says. "People say that it just doesn't sound like The J.Rawls, but that's not true. We are The J.Rawls and we sound like us." Comparing their first EP to "Kid Get Hip," he says, "I don't want to hear the same record over and over again. ... If they're not going to like it I guess they're not really fans." Majer realizes he can't please everyone. But he's confident The J.Rawls are no longer a joke.