JJ Magazine
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Dinner Party
JJ Magazine's sophomore effort is more polished and cohesive
by Anastasia Pantsios

In its unassuming way, JJ Magazine makes some of the most sparkling and engaging pop music in Cleveland. Not surprisingly, the band’s genesis was equally unassuming. The quintet — drummer Glen McNell, guitarists Paul Sydorenko and Zach Starnik, bassist Mike Ocampo and vocalist Roxanne Starnik — fell together naturally about five years ago. No one in the group had played in any “important” local bands. And their sophomore CD, Dinner, which they’ll celebrate with a Last Supper-themed release party this Thursday (fortuitously, the day Christians celebrate the Last Supper this year) is the first opportunity many will have to hear what the band is about.

"We were all kind of friends," says Zach. "We all lived in adjoining townhouses on Bridge and 60th, in a building called Helen Terrace. Glen and I went to school together in Annapolis, Maryland, and we both moved back here after college. We kind of randomly met Paul and Mike, and we recruited Roxanne — she's my little sister. She was singing backup in a band called Saints of Hearts."

The development of the band's sound was almost as accidental as its coming together. The Starnik siblings are fans of '90s Britpop acts like Pulp. Sydorenko likes indie and folk, while Ocampo incorporates some Motown influence in his playing. All those elements come together in JJ Magazine in music that combines the alluring melancholy melodicism of Britpop with a darkly soulful propulsiveness that recalls '80s new-wave acts ranging from Blondie to the Smiths to the Pretenders. Lyrics about offbeat subject matter (they sang about a 19th-century Chicago urban planner in "Daniel Burnham") and a compelling live show driven by Roxanne's boundless energy, bold vocal delivery and onstage acrobatics give the band a sort of accidental distinctiveness and the strong potential to appeal to a wide range of listeners.

"It all kind of comes together," says Zach who, along with Sydorenko, provides the kernels of ideas that spark the band's songs. "The initial chord progression and melody — me and Paul do a lot of that. You kind of have one idea when you start writing a song, but when it goes through the wringer of the band, it comes out as something different. So in the end, we all pretty much write everything. Paul and I and Roxanne write all the lyrics. If it's a sweeter love song, it's usually Paul. If it's a lot of disturbing imagery, it's usually me. A lot of them are just about the city — life in the medium-sized city."

The band made its first stab at recording with Be Happy Love, recorded in three sessions and released in 2007. This time, the band took its time to hammer out a more cohesive and polished sound that brings out the songs' facets more clearly.

"We have a space in Chinatown where we practice and record," says Zach. "We took year to record this, and we mixed it ourselves. We have some friends who do part-time work with orchestra, so we brought them in to do horns on some of the songs. When you're not on the clock, you have more freedom to explore things like that. The songs were able to evolve a little more in the recording process, so it has a more expansive palette. It can be a benefit and a curse: Before, a lot of people liked it because it was raw and live sounding. But your abilities change. I'd like to think we're all a bit smarter about how music works. We write clever, melodic pop songs — that's really our only goal. I'd like to think we write some hummable melodies that you can dance around to." - Anastasia Pantsios


The Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame, Harvey Pekar, bitter winters and pro sports teams of varying quality, has placed  a crown of blue-collar cred upon the head of Cleveland, Ohio.  For years, that tough theme's applied to the city's long-thriving underground rock scene.  This town's had no shortage of two-fisted musical troublemakers hailing from the 70s punk era on down. While not skimping on the toughness that's part of the Cleveland condition, JJ Magazine's newest, Dinner, is indebted to drolly joyous pop from either side of the Atlantic.
 
How did these Cleveland kids come around to such an aesthetic conclusion? Well, a couple of years ago, their debut, Be Happy Love showed a group that loved not only good hooks, but a good puzzle. For JJ, catchy never means simplistic. The chiming guitars and good natured grooves on Be Happy Love possess little compositional ticks and quirks; lead singer Roxanne Starnik's throaty voice sounded more old-souled than squeaky.  Given the several years between Be Happy Love and Dinner, JJ took time to get better at being themselves.
 
Armed with such new musical abilities, and having built their own studio/laboratory in a Downtown Cleveland warehouse, JJ Magazine honed their sound and songs, taking a Brill-Building-On-A-Budget approach.  If Be Happy Love was lunch, Dinner is, well, a hearty dinner.  Having no shortage of time to labor over their record, JJ throws in the ear candy. Vocals bounce hither and yon, guitars sparkle, horn sections pipe out, and  Glenn McNell's drums at times sound like they've been hitting the gym several times a week. 
 
The end result brings to mind some unnamed connection between 80s bands like the Rezillos, Siouxsie (in more of her Creatures incarnation), and any number of 90s UK combos (Elastica, Sleeper, Echobelly).  Songs like "Dollar Coin", and "Simplicity" provides pogo potential for the new wavers. "Be Happy Love" recalls pre-Beatles pop, strings and all.  Shoegazy days gone past are invoked in "Theremin" and "Vampires".
 
More information on JJ Magazine can be found at www.jjmagazine.com or www.myspace.com/jjmagazine.
- Edward Angel Sotelo


It was a cold and snowy night in the city of Cleveland and the members of JJ Magazine have agreed to meet me at the Lava Lounge. Over the years, the Lava Lounge has served as sort of an incubator for aspiring DJ's. Nine months ago it served as the birthplace for the Cleveland band JJ Magazine.

Photography by: Steve Barrett, Laura Webb, Lou Muenz, and Rachel Starnik.
The fluff

ET: For the record, please state your names:



Z: Zach Starnik

G: I'm Glen, I play drums

P: I'm Paul Sydorenko

R: Roxanne Starnik

M: Mike Ocampo

      ET: Who is the ringleader of this outfit?

Z: Nobody.

G: Nobody.

M: (blank stare)

ET: How long has JJ Magazine been around?

Z: Since March.

R: 9 months.

ET: How did you guys get started?

Z: We were in a band earlier called "The Teeth", Paul, Glen and I. And we played a few shows with that band until it kinda fell through eventually. We knew that the three of us wanted to keep playing. So we first added Roxanne and we kind of played together for a little while. We wrote a lot of the songs that we play now but it didn't really coalesce until Mike came along probably about a month or two after we started.

M: The other band I was in was called Aeris and a band from North Carolina called Fashion Design wanted to play with us. The other members of Aeris didn't want to play at that show. I was looking for people to play and I ran into Paul and Zach here at Lava Lounge. I asked them if they wanted to play the show. They didn't have a bass player so I said, "I'll play with you guys". We had like one week to practice.

ET: So up until Mike came along you didn't have a bass player?

Z: No

M: So that was it.

(rest of the band laughing)

M: That was nine months ago

ET: When was your very first show
R: April 14th at Pat's in the Flats
     

M: With Fashion Design.

Z: Two weeks after Mike signed up. So we hit the ground running pretty hard, I guess.

Zach grabs the tape recorder and speaks loudly into it.

Z: We hit the ground hard, I guess.

(more laughing)

ET: When asked the dreaded question, "What kind of music do you play?" What do you guys tell them?

G: I usually say rock or pop, just because it satisfies people, but I can't say that we're rock and I can't say that we're pop. I can say that we write really good songs, we just try to keep it original, keep it fresh sounding and just try to sound like ourselves. As long as we're making ourselves happy when we play music, I think that the genre we're looking for. But it's a strength too because the best bands that you ever hear, you can never pigeonhole. You can never say they sound like the Gin Blossoms or whatever.

ET: Anyone else?

R: I think we sound really good. (laughing)

ET: We already know that JJ Magazine rocks by night, what does JJ Magazine do by day?

Z: This is Zach. I wait tables at Heck's café in Ohio City and I'm a graduate student at Cleveland State University at the Levin College.

G: I dabble in many things. What I do for money, I work in a restaurant as well.

P: Uh.... Yeah. I'm an Assistant Preparator at the Museum of Contemporary Arts and I'm an artist, and a musician, and a dreamer.

R: This is Roxanne. I am somewhat unemployed. I do a lot of hanging out at the guy's house. I teach dance and... Mike?

M: I'm an IT Consultant but I try to rock at that too.

ET: Actually, Zach you waited on us at a restaurant called Indigo a long time ago. I have a freakishly good memory and I remember that. You gave us excellent service.

Z: Thank you. Thank you. They went out of business.

ET: Protractor or compass?

Z: I would definitely have to go with compass.

G: I would have to say pro-track-tour.

P: Protractorcompass, it's a new tool that we developed.

(laughing)

R: I would have to say Come-Pass.

ET: That's what I thought you would say.

M: (singing) Compass, because you wont find your way around without a compass. You have to know where North is.



ET: I detect a bit of a punk rock influence in your music? What are your musical influences?

Z: I'm the Brit-pop segment of this band I suppose. I'm a huge Pulp, Blur and Smiths fan.

G: When I was a kid, I was a huge metal head.

ET: That why you're the drummer.

G: Actually, I'm a guitar player. I'm the better drummer of our crew so I kinda got drafted into the position. I also played jazz for a long time. What I bring to the table is a bit more rhythmic.

P: I listen to all kinds of music. Everything. Lately a lot of Interpol and the Animal Collective, real avant-guard kind of stuff. I'd say Ween is a big influence.

Zach takes the tape recorder back.

Z: Also Ween and the Frogs.

R: I'm pretty much identical to Zack. Also Interpol and the Animal Collective as well and ...

M: Growing up as a teenager, I used to break-dance to Newcleus, Run DMC, and Cool Moe Dee. In high school I got into The Cure and New Order. Then after high school, the Manchester music scene is what I was into particularly The Stone Roses and Ride.

Roxanne takes the tape recorder.

R: And Beck.

Z: And the Helen Terrace Crew.

ET: I saw that show. You guys really surprised me because I had no idea that any of you could rap. That was really cool.



ET: Are there any bands out there that make you want to vomit?

Z: I asked this question once. There's this pizza place we all like to go to called Dina's. I posed this question to... I think Paul was there and another one of our roommates: If you had to be stuck on an island with either Sublime or Bare-naked Ladies, who would you choose? And they seemed to think Sublime would be the better one to be stuck with, I would argue Bare-naked Ladies, but I think that those are two of my least favorite bands in the entire world.

G: What's the "Arms wide open" song?

Z: Creed

G: Yeah Creed, oh my god they just pulled the wool over everybody's eye on that one. It's like they ripped off all of Pantera's licks and they just put Jesus lyrics on top. Are you kidding me? I'd have to say every band that ripped off every metal band that happened ten years ago. That drives me nuts.

P: I would say the whole new metal genre.

R: I can't think of anything off the top of my head.

M: I like it all. I can tap my feet to Sublime and I can nod my head to Bare-naked Ladies.

R: Oh, I don't really like Irish music. My mom plays it all the time. And I really don't like it.

Z: Any world music really.

R: I do like Enya though. (laughing)

G: What about the Corrs?

R: I don't like the Corrs.

ET: What do you think of the music scene in Cleveland?

Z: I think that we were lucky enough to run into bands right off the bat that were sort of from the same spirit. I know that Mikey Machine from Machine Go Boom always comes to our shows. We're playing with them at the end of the month. We played with Perfect Guy and Decadent last week. I like them a lot. There are good bands here, I think that overall it's not great, but there are some good bands out there.

G: I'm from Baltimore originally. This is reason that I moved here, because the scene is pretty close. There's a lot of venues for bands to play, there's shows all the time. The only real drawback here is the local media doesn't give any props to the local bands out there. The bands that they review are pretty much of the same genre. Like a metal, hardcore kinda genre. It's either that or the national acts. National acts always get precedence over the local acts. Even though a lot of the local acts can upstage some of the national acts that come through here.

ET: What bands do you like from around here?

G: Oh, I like Perfect Guy, Machine Go Boom, Self Destruct Button, and Clan of the Cave Bear.

P: Disengage is pretty good. We played a show with them, it was a lot of fun, pretty violent.

ET: You're music is very different from theirs.

G: Almost every show we play, Jason Byers is there. We love to hear him play. It's not so much about genre it's about the quality of the music.

M: It's about supporting people.

G: It's a big support network here in Cleveland.

R: Cleveland is really good about that. Cleveland people like Cleveland people.

P: Cleveland Rocks!

ET: This is a question for Roxanne. I remember the first time I saw you guys play out. It was probably one of the first times that you guys played out period. Roxanne, you seemed very timid and quiet. You're not that way anymore. What happened?

R: I got very comfortable.

G: We really got on your case.

ET: Tell us more about that.

Z: We told her to step it up.

G: We had a little sit down. We're all buddies. You're playing for us, you're not playing for the audience.

R: Well in school I always wanted to be the lead role in a musical but it never happened. And so I felt that JJ Magazine was finally my chance to step up to the mike. (laughing) My dad also helped me.

ET: I think that "The Future Song" is brilliant. It has qualities of being a radio hit, only you swear in it, big time. Do you consider this song to be sort of a rejection of the commercial music industry, knowing that your song could never be played on the radio without it being censored or changed?

M: It was played on the radio. Studio-Rama on 91.1, we had to replace the words with...

R: Huffin' We said the future huffing rules instead of the future fucking rules.

ET: And how did you feel about that?

M: It was huffin' great!

Z: I can tell you what the song is really about.

ET: Oh sure.

Z: The future song is about... basically, I made a terrible attempt at moving to Philadelphia, and I thought I was going to be living with a girl that I didn't get to live with.

R: Oh....

Z: I had a really horrible experience. It was a song rallying against everything I thought Philadelphia was.

ET: Let's talk about the Suicide Song. That song really made an impact on me a couple of month ago when someone I knew took her own life. What is that song about?

P: I wrote the music. Zach wrote the words. I don't know. I like the music the chord structure and what not.

Z: Roxanne and I wrote the lyrics together. It was supposed to be melodramatic and tongue in cheek I guess. I guess that it's not the most pleasant subject to write something tongue in cheek about. It's hard to say what people think about when we play it. When I wrote it, it was supposed to be melodramatic and over the top. It's a story about someone committing suicide because they think they're going to be reincarnated. It supposed to be really melodramatic and over the top and I guess it is.

ET: Sorry for bringing you guys down.

(laughing)

ET: What do the ties symbolize?

Z: I've always worn a tie every show I've every played.

G: I think I look really hot. I think it's kinda a unity thing. Oh those are the guys who always wear ties. Plus you get dressed up... Bands don't do that anymore.

R: I think it's nice to dress up at your shows ‘cause, I think we take ourselves pretty seriously. We like to perform. We like to look nice.

M: It's a form of discipline.

ET: What's on the horizon for JJ Magazine? CD? Tour?

G: Recording.

Z: Hopefully we'll be recording this month. We hope to have at least three or four songs done. It seems like we have plenty of shows. So look for us in the paper. If you live in Cleveland. I know we talk about touring. We've been lucky enough to play with touring bands who've said they can get us shows. So hopefully in the future we'll be able to do that.

G: But you can't tour unless you have a CD. That's the priority right now.

P: Practice, practice, practice. Probably write some more songs. I know that Zach is working on some stuff, Mike is working on some stuff. I'm working on some stuff. Roxanne just got a digital recorder I know she's been working on some stuff. And...we'll have T-shirts really soon.

  For more information about JJ Magazine go to www.jjmagazine.com - flipsidenews


Discography

Recordings:
JJ Magazine EP for Sundance Film Festival:
Future Song
Little Boy in Kenya
Be Happy Love
La La La Time

--
JJ Magazine - Live at the Grog Shop

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JJ Magazine - Live at WRUW's Studio-A-Rama

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JJ Magazine - Be Happy Love:
Story Song
Old Man Dying
La La La Time
Daniel Burnham
Little Boy In Kenya
Angel Informer
Bum Square
Don't Drive
Fight the Good Fight
Note

---
Audio Eagle Records - Ohio Compilation:
Dinner

--
JJ Magazine - Dinner:
Scales
Dollar Coin
Be Happy Love
You Ain't No Fun
Simplicity
Theremin
YNDWYT
Vampires
Laundry
Stoner

Photos

Bio

After previous ventures in projects as diverse as the band itself, JJ Magazine has landed a sound both strikingly unique and warmly familiar. Their influences come from stylistic approaches rather than any one particular band. “No one can seem to pigeon hole us,” explains drummer Glen McNell. “I’ve heard everything from Blondie to Stereolab to Pulp, and even The Velvet Underground.” Roxanne Starnik’s lilting melodies weave their way through the rich harmonic tapestry laid out by guitarists Paul Sydorenko and Zach Starnik (yes, he’s Roxanne’s brother.) Bassist Michael Ocampo pins down the beat and sculpts the sound with catchy hooks and rhythms. Often short, but always sweet, JJ Magazine’s tunes offer a wide range of textures and emotions.