Music Q-and-A: Red Circle Underground’s Jonah Grey

red-circle-undergroundLos Angeles-based Red Circle Underground may sound like a group of covert political activists (a mix of the Red Army and the Weather Underground), but really the band is simply a rock outfit reminiscent of classics like the James Gang and Johnny Cash juxtaposed against experimental influences such as Brian Eno, Radiohead and Blur.

Friday night at the Viper Room marks RCU’s final performance with the group’s current line-up. Keyboardist Nikki Kilker and bassist Jonathan Stip will soon depart to pursue family life.

But the RCU is no stranger to a revolving line-up, as singer Jonah Grey told us. In a candid interview, Grey talked about the group’s origins, the current transition and what will become of the Red Circle Underground.

Question: What is the meaning of your name?

Answer: We chose it because it sounded political but wasn’t at all. You know the London Underground Rail symbol, the red circle with ‘underground’ written across it? One of us was drunk one night and was just like ‘Hey, Red Circle Underground.’

Q: When did the Red Circle Underground form?

A: We started back in late 2006 with a completely different line-up. There were six of us then.

Q: How many members have you gone through during the last six years?

A: We’ve gone through like three different bass players and four different drummers. We added a keyboard player, Nikki, about a year ago, which made it seven members. Actually, she and the bass player just got engaged, just had a baby and now they are moving to Ohio in last August they told us. It’s kind of a good thing to change things and try something different.

Q: Who does the writing in the band?

A: It’s an interesting mix because everybody has different [musical] influences in the band. We try to approach it from a collaborative standpoint when we all write and create things, often it takes a little bit longer. It’s going to be interesting to see where it goes from here with less members.

Q: How many original members remain?

A: It’s myself, Britton Sparkman (the guitar player) and Nick Burr, who does harmonica and percussion. We were the original three, jamming in the apartment where everything started.

Q: Although RCU is not political, which current issues raise your eyebrows?

A: I’m always interested to comment on the political climate. I think we’re at a crossroads as far as our position in the world with the Middle East, the turmoil there. We’ve done things poorly for so long that now it’s catching up to us. Look at the economy, everything you read says it’s improving but then you look at the way they measure unemployment and wages aren’t improving. Things only improve for the ‘1 percent.’ Wall Street’s doing great but it doesn’t translate to anyone else. I can’t remember a point in my lifetime when we’ve had the kind of class disparity we are seeing now.

Q: What about your latest album?

A: Ghost was the last one, it came out about six months ago in late fall. It’s a full-length album.

Q: Have you played the Viper Room before?

A: We play there a lot. Viper’s always been great, the sound there is amazing. It’s one of the few places on The Strip where I feel like the sound guys are really hands on and actually care about it. They’ve always treated us well.

Q: How many times have you played The Viper?

A: Maybe 20 to 30 in the past six years. We usually try to play there a few times a year.

Q: So what will you do after Friday’s show?

A: We want to approach it differently now. Before we do anything live, we want to go back to the studio and re-structure things, re-engineer. Whatever we do, it will be different, minimal. You can’t force a square peg in a round hole. Having seven people in the band, it was great for a while but eventually it became a burden. Writing parts for seven different instruments, it’s not as valuable as I would have liked it to have been.

Q: Who are The Dead Men?

A: A friend of mine, ‘The James,’ is a rapper. He and I started the group back in 2008 when we called it the Dead Poets. It was very basic then, I would play music, he would rap. We took a few years to develop our sound and started working with this producer, Mitch [Renessis]. Through that we’ve gotten a lot of placements from licensing deals. I don’t know if you’d call it hip hop or what but … it’s hard to classify at this point. There’s a rap element.

Q: How will it translate as a live performance?

A: It’s the three of us and we’ll add a live drummer. A lot of hip hop shows, they don’t translate live, so that’s one thing we want to figure out before we present it to people. How are we going to make it impactful and entertaining, not disappointing. It’s so easy to make a polished product in the studio that bands often overlook the importance of a good live show.

Q: How did you come to be a musician?

A: As a kid I had this Smurf record player for my Michael Jackson 45s. When I was 7 or 8 I demanded to take piano lessons, then I took bass lessons after that. The appeal of being a musician was always there.

Q: How do you want to change the world with your music?

A: I don’t know if I do. In the past years I’ve been studying a lot of Eastern philosophy, one of the tenets is ‘don’t think the world should be any different than it is.’ Literally, music is completely selfish for me. If you think it’s great then that’s awesome. Playing music is one of the few activities I derive a huge amount of enjoyment from.

Q: How do you like to expand your mind?

A: Reading and learning, as cliche and basic as that is. I have this weird activity where I go on Wikipedia and just link from topic to topic through articles and start winding down this rabbit hole of information. Stay open to new things. Getting hammered is another way. Everything is a learning opportunity.