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Interview: Jonny Polonsky

12 May 2023

Photo by Mark Seliger

Jonny Polonsky’s led a charmed musical life. From hanging out with prestigious guitar heroes early in his career to playing sideman to artists ranging from Neil Diamond to Pete Yorn, Polonsky’s continuously chasing the next thing which, for the most part, is writing and recording his own material. Polonsky’s introduction to the world came in 1996 when Rick Rubin’s American Recordings released Hi, My Name is Jonny and this week, Polonsky’s eighth album, Rise of the Rebel Angels, is out today on the recently revived Loosegrooves Records, a label formed in the ’90s by Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard and his musical partner Regan Hagar (Brad, Satchel). As Polonsky told me during a recent conversation, his ninth album is already in the can and will be released later this year.

We started our chat by discussing Polonsky’s teenage years.

Some of my favorite bands in the ’90s were from Chicago. You grew up there, were you out seeing shows when you were a teenager?

JONNY: I was a suburban kid and going to tons of shows. I grew up in Wilmette, two cities north of Chicago along the lake. And, the great thing about that town, other than being very pretty and right on the lake, is that it’s the last L stop. When I was 12, I realized that and started going to the city. I was going to the Metro, the Riviera, the Aragon all the time when I was a teenager.

I was also in Boston for a couple of years. I went to the Berklee College of Music for two semesters. It really was just to get out of Chicago and try something new. I made friends with Reeves Gabrels, the guitar player who was in Tin Machine, then later with David Bowie, and now with The Cure. He was a huge hero of mine, still is, but back then, you’re a teenager, it’s like, “Forget it.” We’d made friends over the phone and he was like my first big supporter. He’s the one that introduced me to Frank Black so I just wanted to go hang out with him.

I convinced my mom to send me to Boston to go to school and all I did was smoke weed and go hang out with Reeves Gabrels and play in bands. That was a great decision (laughs).

What was it like for you being a teenager and hanging out with all these people whose CDs and cassettes you owned?

JONNY: Incredible. It was totally surreal. It was so long ago. It’s when people still had landlines and you could call 411 and say, “Boston, Massachusetts. Reeves Gabrels,” and they’d give you the number. The people I was interested in weren’t necessarily big, big stars. They were to me. When I was 17 or 18, I called up Marc Ribot (Tom Waits) and he was another really supportive, early mentor.

Part of it was just to see if I could do it. It just dawned on me, like, “Well, these are human beings that are playing on these records that I love and they must live somewhere.” And I just started doing it. It wasn’t even a conscious thing like, “Oh, now I’m networking.” I was, kind of in the back of my mind, hoping that someone would help me in some way. But I was writing songs. Those early tapes, they’re out there now. They’re on Spotify under The Amazing Jonny Polonsky. It’s more like Ween. Even Ween wrote songs. These aren’t even really songs, it’s more like comedy tapes. They’re musical and they’re all over the map, like Ennio Morricone, like death metal western swing, and Les Paul and Mary Ford. It was all this different music that I loved and was interested in.

I was just messing around on my 4-track and releasing those tapes. But, I used it as an excuse to call these people up. I think when anyone is really serious about doing something, it’s natural to look for a mentor, whether you realize you’re doing it or not. I didn’t realize I was doing it. I just tried it and it started working. I was like, “Oooh, this is cool. This is really fun.” A lot of those people are really old, dear friends of mine now. That’s the thing about music and the arts, it really does connect people in many different ways. And some of my deepest friendships are from these crazy 411 calls as a teenager.

It seems like you had sophisticated tastes for a teenager. I’m just a few years older than you but grew up on MTV and loved ’80s hair metal. I wouldn’t know who Reeves Gabrels or Marc Ribot were for another 20 years.

JONNY: I don’t remember how I got into Tom Waits. I think he’s just one of those names that you’d grow up hearing. And, I took a chance and got Frank’s Wild Years and it totally blew my mind, that entire record. I just totally fell in love with it, especially the guitar playing. It was my demented teenage thinking. “This guitar player, based on him playing guitar, sounds like he’s really smart and really funny and really nice.” It turns out he is. Those are all true adjectives about Marc. But, I don’t know what drove me to call him.

I would ask them questions like, “How did you do that one thing on that song?” and “What gear are you using?” I think they were kind of charmed that some teenager was interested in what they were doing. This was before they were huge. I mean, they’re not household names but for people that play guitar and in music, they’re very well respected, legendary figures now.

I reviewed your 2020 album, Kingdom of Sleep and the music on the new album doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff on that album. I feel like you don’t stick in one lane.

JONNY: Yeah, I just kind of go where my interests take me. It’s a lot of things. It’s like the mood I’m in, what I’m going through. Some people have a “thing”, and I love lots of bands that do that, whether it’s like AC/DC or the Ramones. You just kind of go after the bands and artists that you love and once you’re realize you’re not them, you have to do whatever it is you do and not what they’re doing. An early, huge North Star for me is Jimi Hendrix. He only released three records but you got the feeling that he would have gone in a thousand different areas. And same with Kurt Cobain. You could just tell he would have done a million different things would have been really surprising. I’m sure there would have been quiet acoustic stuff and some noise records, anything imaginable. I love artists that do that. That’s just the way I’m wired. I’m a huge fan of John Zorn. I love P.J. Harvey. She’s always surprising and it doesn’t feel contrived.

Did you go into this new record with a vibe, a feeling that you wanted to get across? Did you want this to be your fill-in-the-blank record?

JONNY: No. There’s another record coming out in the fall. That actually was recorded first and it took like a year-and-a-half. There’s strings and tons of guest musicians and it’s like this big, big production. It wasn’t intended to be, but it just ended up that way. And that’s the record that got me signed, that Stone Gossard heard and signed me to the label. And then he asked if I had any other tunes. I was like, “Yeah, here’s 70 more.” We just went through all these demos, basically me and and him and another guy at the label and my manager. It was actually really the most collaborative record I’ve ever worked on, this one, which is kind of ironic because I play everything on it except for two songs.

A lot of the songs are based off of iPhone demos. I’d send them all sorts of stuff, like some 20-second iPhone snippet from six years ago. “Oh, this is great. You should work on that.” Some of those turned out to be some of my favorite tunes. A lot of the songs on the record are the actual iPhone demo. And then I would overdub on top of it. The only thing in my head was, getting back to those early tapes I would make, I’ve really missed that way of working, where it wasn’t so precious. I do love making records that are very manicured. You spend a lot of time and make sure everything is just how it needs to be, and it really just depends on the songs. But these songs just felt a lot looser to me. The record that’s coming out in the fall was a big production. Kind of the last thing I wanted to do was get into a big, long, intense record making process again.

That record took like a year-and-a-half and the record that’s coming out this week took like three weeks. I just blazed through it. I rented a recording studio, and did the drums in ten or 12 hours, did a couple of organ parts, and then took everything back home and did everything else on my laptop and mixed the record myself.

So stylistically, no, I just wanted to make something really exciting and just real bold and that would jump out of the speakers. But also there’s a bunch of moody stuff on there. I wasn’t really trying to make it very broad ranging vibe wise, but I feel like it got pretty dynamic, which I like.

The White Album is a big touchstone for me throughout my life, like, “Oh, yeah, you can just do anything, like throw it all in there,” and it fits together like a really nice piece of work. But also I’m always thinking of, like, Raw Power, which is eight songs, and it’s all very super intense. Everything is very impactful. Those are the records I think of whenever I’m making something.

There wasn’t really much forethought other than let’s pick the best songs. And it was really fun for me, having all these sounding boards of people who I trusted saying what they thought would be interesting to pursue. I just recorded everything and we figured it out from there.

Have these songs been in your back pocket for a while, or at least bits and pieces, or did are they brand new songs?

JONNY: Some are brand new, some have been around for a while. The first song that came out was the first song I recorded when I moved to L.A. 20 years ago. So that song, “Let it Rust,” I ended up doing a bunch of work on it. It was kind of unfinished to me, so I finished it. The bulk of that song and the recording is a couple of decades old. But to me, it doesn’t matter. If a song is any good, it should have a timeless quality to it. It shouldn’t really have an expiration date.

I’m always writing. I’ve always got songs, but there’s stuff that gets lost along the way, and then if something’s interesting to me, if I still feel it when the time is right, I’ll finish it or record it or just release it. It doesn’t really matter to me if it’s brand new. The listener doesn’t know.

With “Let it Rust” being a song you wrote decades ago, how did that not end up on one of the many albums you’re released before now?

JONNY: I don’t know (laughs). I’ve got a lot of songs. You can kind of tell what songs belong on there and what don’t. Sometimes things just end up on the hard drive or wherever that I sort of forget about.

It’s not that I dislike songs, but after a while, it’s not even that I lose interest, they’ll stay in my head, but I’m always looking to the next thing and always working on something new and trying to push myself.

I put out a record a couple of years ago that was a lot of demos and unreleased stuff. There’s not a ton of music that I haven’t put out.

Does it feel weird to talk about music that you finished two years ago?

JONNY: It’s exciting. It’s unusual now. The last ten years I’ve been self releasing everything, so everything’s been very immediate. It’s unusual for me to be talking about a record or releasing a record long after I’ve finished it, but that’s kind of how it was was in the old days.

My first record, that was the third version of those songs for most of those songs. They’d been around some of them since ’92/‘93. That record didn’t come out until ’96. I’m just psyched about the record and I’m excited to be working with Stone and Loosegroove. I’m excited that someone who’s not me is paying for the records to get printed up. They’re super supportive and very cool and smart. I’ll release music regardless but it’s always way better to have a trusty team behind what’s going on and have other people excited and have everyone doing their bit to help get it out to the people, because that’s the hardest thing. Anyone can make music now. The technology, as far as making it and distributing it, it’s never been easier, but as everybody knows, the hardest thing is just to get people to be aware of it.

Do you have a history with Stone and Regan?

JONNY: I’d never met them before. Stone, I guess, had known about me because Brendan O’Brien mixed my first record, Hi, My Name is Jonny, so I guess he was aware of me way back in the day. And Stone and I have mutual friends, but we’d never met. I didn’t know Regan. And the guy who mixed not this record, but the one that’s coming out in the fall, is Alain Johannes. He’s incredible. I’ve loved Al’s Music forever and we became friends in LA a little bit, and then we’ve worked together a little bit just since my moving to New York. He mixed this record. I knew he was friends with Stone. I asked him to give Stone a copy, and he did. And then Stone liked it and signed me. It was nice and simple. We still haven’t met in person. I’ve met Regan, he came out and did the videos. We filmed four videos in two days. He’s super talented.

You’ve done a lot of touring with other bands, just playing guitar. Do you enjoy that, not being the front person?

JONNY: Yeah, it depends on what it is. I love playing with Pete Yorn and Local H. I mean, in a weird way, it’s more fun than doing my thing. It’s a whole different thing. It’s very easy. It’s like you just enter someone else’s world. For whatever reason, I’m good at getting the gist of what’s needed. I just do it. And there’s no emotional attachment to it, really. It’s not that I don’t care. I do care, but it’s not my thing. So there’s nothing really to invest in it other than helping somebody do their thing.

And I love a lot of music, so it’s really fun. And I learn a lot just from playing with different people and working with different people and seeing how they operate and how they create. So I love it. I would love to do more. I did a little thing with David J and a couple of other people for this Ramones tribute that’s going to come out next year. That was really fun. That was the first time I played with somebody else in ages.

On your Instagram, you’ve got videos from when you lived in L.A. and playing shows at the Hotel Café with other musicans.

JONNY: It tends towards singer/songwriters but Tom Morello had a weekly residency for a month when his first solo album came out in 2007. Those were so much fun. It was like The Love Boat because I was playing this band. I was playing whatever was needed, bass guitar or whatever. Ever week it’d be like Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Perry Farrell. Slash. Jerry Cantrell. Mick Mars. It was just endless. It was so cool. That’s one thing that’s a bit of a drag, some of the coolest stuff that I was a part of was just before the iPhone revolution so most of it’s not on film.

We played with Lemmy too. That wasn’t at the Hotel Café. We played in a band with Brother Wayne Kramer from the MC5 and Steve Earle and Lemmy came out and we were trying to decide what Motorhead song we were going to do. We were all cramped in this little tiny backstage with Lemmy, with him on the laptop watching Motorhead videos. At some point, he was like, “I don’t want to do a Motorhead song.” We ended up doing “Back in the U.S.A.,” this Chuck Berry tune that the MC5 covered. Lemmy only sang. I played bass. He’s just up at the mic singing and at the end of the song he just walks off stage. Before he does, he looks me in the face, grabs my jowl, and was like, “Nicely done, my son.” That was amazing, but it’s not on film.

Seeing you play with Serj and Mick Mars, it seems so surreal. Did it feel weird for you?

JONNY: Oh, it did, in the best way. I’m a huge fan. I love Motley Crue. I love System of a Down. It’s like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” Mick Mars? Give me a break. I wrote a couple of songs with him too. I had an old manager who hooked me up with Mick. He never ended up making a solo record but he was writing for a solo record. I went up there for a couple of days, when he still lived in Malibu, and we wrote a couple of songs together and recorded them. I have it somewhere. It’s not digitized. It’s lost somewhere in a pile of tapes.

For me, starting with track 3, “Black Menagerie,” and going through to the next two songs, “Idiot Gold,” and “Always Someone Saying Something,” that’s the power trio of the album. “Black Menagerie” reminds me of something that I can’t put my finger on.

JONNY: When I write, I just pick up a guitar and things come out. In retrospect, I can pick out, “Oh yeah, that’s kind of like this or kind of like that.” I always find it interesting to hear what people pick out of things. To me, I was thinking of Blur, with that guitar thing. But the groove is very Sly Stone and Stone mentioned it reminds him of Wings, which I can totally see. The chorus is very Paul McCartney. When I’m writing, I just do it. It just sort of comes out. And in retrospect, I might push things in one way or another with references in my head, but it’s not preconceived.

Do you prefer working in the studio or playing live?

JONNY: I love them both. They’re radically different. I’m putting a band together right now. I’ve got a drummer. I’m looking for a bass player. But, I love performing. I haven’t done it, other than a couple of shows, but not a real full-on band show since before the pandemic. I would love to tour. I love touring but it’s just so expensive. I think a lot of things have to converge to make it make sense. But I would love to hit the road for this record. I love performing and I love recording. It’s just like two completely different mindsets.

After all this time, and with lots of the focus of release being on the digital release, do you still get excited?

JONNY: I’m really excited. It’s never gonna be like the first time. Like, I was 22 when that first record came out, and the mid ’90s was a very different world, very different music world. Obviously, I was different, you know? And I’m not at all jaded. I’m still really super excited. I feel like I’m in better shape on all levels than I’ve ever been, but at the same time, it’s like I’ve been through it a few times, so it’s not jaded, I’m excited. But it’s also not like the first time. “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening.” It’s just like so beyond surreal. Something you’ve dreamt about since you were a little kid is actually finally occurring.

Do you know the plans for the album coming out in the fall?

JONNY: I’m putting the final touches on it today and going to send it to get printed up. It was taking six months to get records printed up. Now it’s taking more like two or three months. It will be a 2023 release. That’s the plan. Hopefully September, October or something like that.