Juana Ghani has quickly become a Salt Lake City favorite. Shows are a weekly, if not more regular thing for them, and it's not hard to see why. A little bit ragamuffin, gypsy, punk, and always a party, they seem to have an energy that doesn't quit. And it's not like any concert you've ever been to before.
Belly dancers, burlesque artists, fire performers, and ten colorful musicians take over any stage, dancing, singing, and inviting you to be a part of that crazy mix. In a notoriously quiet and aloof town, they've managed to make themselves a splash of fun that everyone jumps into. Bars and restaurants are packed to the point of having people line up down the streets, and dancing outside the restaurants until the early hours of the morning.
Leisl & Brian:
Brian and Leisl are the kind of people who stick out in any situation. We met them in a crowded coffee shop on a stormy, thundering night. People were chatting loudly, and there was plenty going on, but as soon as they walked in, all eyes were diverted straight to them. And it suits them. Easily, they ordered and hugged us warmly, before jumping straight into the crazy stories we've shared below.
Leisl has a warmth to her that seems to find itself in everything she does. In a way, she has adopted a wise woman stance, a mix of otherworldly evoker and maternal healer, and a healthy dash of arts savvy. Combine it with her theater background and natural managing abilities, not to mention that killer haunting voice that tears through the air like lightning, and you've got the perfect headwoman for Juana Ghani. The purple hair definitely adds a spice to the flavor, though.
On the other side of the Bonnell coin, is Brian, the man whose very appearance reminds me of swashbuckling pirates and back alley rogues. He's constantly full of fantastic stories, and his brain seems to work a million miles an hour, always creating, always performing. Yet he's always kind, and easy to approach, and one can easily see the camaraderie he's developed with not just his fellow musicians, but the entire audience.
If it weren't for this couple, who I can call nothing short of a power couple, Juana Ghani, one of the premier bands of the Salt Lake Valley would not exist. On top of this, one of the most unique, loving, and outrageous couples would be sorely missed. So thank goodness for these two and their combined genius. Most of the musicians we interview know of them and speak very highly of them. The world is definitely a brighter place for having them.
Kita: What inspired you to create a band?
Leisl: It was his idea.
Brian: I played music for (coughing fit) number of years. I’ve done it here, I’ve done it out of the state and so it’s just kind of been a part of who I am and what I do. We didn’t really set out to start this band, it started us, more than anything else.
Kita: How does that work?
Brian: I got turned onto a lot of different music from what I had traditionally listened to for most of my life. Stuff like Tom Waits; he was one of the big people that really changed my point of view. I was playing in more rock and roll, heavy metal types of bands. I was just really yearning for something different. I’d rather just not play anything at all, then continue with what I was playing. So we messed around with some stuff, we did a production of the Rocky Mountain Horror Show, but it wasn’t a rock band. We put together the production with about fifteen actors, and we were a live band, and we did the whole show, with dialogue and costumes, and everything. It was really exciting.
Leisl: And we took it into bars, so it wasn’t a theatrical production, which is what I was used to.
Brian: So we played at Club Vegas, and it was just such an exhilarating experience, to be playing something that wasn’t just a rock and roll band. There was the visuals, the theater, the really cool music, the fun, kitchy story. So we did that for a year, and that kind of planted the bug of wanting to do something that was still just different from what we had done before. In the mean time, finding bands like Tom Waits, and discovering Gogol Bordello, Fire Water, I so fell in love with this music. I would listen to it nonstop. I immersed myself in it, this kind of European, thoughtful, life music. A short time after that, I had put together a studio in my basement. I hadn’t been writing songs in a couple of years. After immersing myself in this style of music so deeply, when I started writing songs, that was just what was coming out. I would write songs without trying to conform to anything. You know, if the song ended up being twenty minutes long, that was fine. If it had bagpipes in it, that was fine. Just whatever, there was no limitation to this. Whatever the rhythm might want to be, whatever the ethnicity might want to be, just whatever it wanted to do. Then I would just record this stuff, and kept writing this stuff. This music just came out. I wasn’t necessarily searching for it, more than it found me. I was just lucky enough to capture it and record it, more than being responsible for writing it. It was like catching a shooting star as it came by. And it just evolved from there.
Kita: From that point, how long did it take to solidify into being a band?
Leisl: That kind of grew organically. During all of this, while he was doing that, I’d left theater. I’d been acting for years and decided that it wasn’t where I wanted to be anymore. I was losing track of who I was, because I was so busy playing all of these other people. And then I ended up having foot surgery that laid me up for awhile. So we took advantage of the percocet. Not that, he was taking it.
Brian: That you knew of.
Leisl: He was taking advantage of me being on the percocet. He started bringing me these things and I started writing lyrics to these things, out in this unfiltered phase. So all of that was coming in. So we decided to start bringing in some guest musicians to help create it. I’d been doing some guest vocals with No Blood to Spare, and that’s when I met Tony. We talked to him first. We’d been at rehearsal for No Blood to Spare, and he mentioned something while he was playing his mandolin, that he felt like his was channeling his bohemian ancestors. It was, “Oh! Why don’t you come over sometime?” So he was the first. He came in, and then he found Nick through a craigslist ad, and brought him in. And then things just started kind of growing out from there. So what started out as just a diversion grew into this huge sized family that we’ve got now.
Brian: Stepping back from that a little bit, when we first started putting it together, I’d spend a month or so on a song. I didn’t try to do anything, I wasn’t limited by a budget or a schedule. I wasn’t limited by band members, I wasn’t limited by anything except whatever it was that I felt at the time. And so, I was able to spend a lot of time on these songs initially. So we’d finish them up, and I’d find a little piece of artwork to go with it. It was just like a pebble into a lake, throwing it out into the land of the internet. We passed it around to a few friends, a kind of, “Hey, look what we’re doing,” kind of a thing. And I guess she sent it to some podcast.
Leisl: Big Town in England was the one.
Brian: And we suddenly started getting contacts from people in England that were starting to give us a lot of feedback about these songs that weren’t anything other than our wine soaked imaginations. We started getting a lot more information and even some reviews on some of the stuff. It started to turn around to where people were asking us when we were going to be playing. And it was two of us. I was playing all the instruments, and she was singing. But more and more we were getting asked, “When are you guys going to be playing?” We thought, “I guess we should get a band together for this kind of thing.” So it really was something that came without us, that pulled us into it more than we were searching to make it happen.
Kita: So how did you come by the name of Juana Ghani?
Brian: Well I was a merchant marine back in the forties, and I traveled through Singapore and Taiwan, and ya know, through one of these drunken nights of looking at the moon and wondering when I’d ever see home again, this gypsy fortune teller came across and was just mentioning this name over and over and over. I ran into her, and it knocked me back, and I stepped on this rat that was about as big as a cat. It was amazing, it had this big tail that someone had cut off right at the very end, and it was just disgusting. This rat took off, and dogs chased after it, and I was just coming down off this tequila and heroin hangover, and all I could think was, “Juana Ghani, Juana Ghani, what did she mean?” From then on, it was just stuck in my head. So then I got back into the states, and it just stuck with me.
Kita: Did you just make that up on the spot?
Leisl: Yes! That was so much better than what I had. It’s our new official story.
Brian: Okay! Or there could be more about that time we were caught in the brothels in Czechoslovakia.
Leisl: We don’t talk about me getting caught in the brothels in Czechoslovakia anymore.
Brian: Madame Ghani.
Kita: Do we have to worry about Interpol knocking down the door?
Leisl: Not for that.
Kita: How do you decide what songs to play overall?
Brian: Again, they kind of come to us. You know, I can’t really sit down and write a song. It’s more that it keeps me up at night and keeps playing in my head until I’m forced to go and do something with it. So the songs have come to us that way too. It’s not really a conscious decision about what to do. As far as the writing goes. There’s a few traditionals we like to do. We’ve come across that in various ways. Movie soundtracks sometimes have these surprising little songs in them.
Leisl: Following links in Cyrillic on Youtube.
Brian: Yeah, going down the Youtube rabbit hole and just looking at bands you really like, and who they like. Discovering that stuff.
Leisl: That’s how we get the traditionals.
Brian: And the more we found this Eastern European, Russian, Gypsy, Italian kind of sound, the more we started looking for that. We discovered some really cool songs, songs that had been around for a hundred years. Some people know them, most people don’t know them, but you know them even though you don’t know them, if that makes sense. Something just resonates with you. And those are the kind of songs we are attracted to.
Leisl: And then to put the set list together, we like to take all of these and find different ways to weave them together to tell a story. A lot of them have a similar theme that are really just different levels about either the descent into insanity or the rise out of insanity, hope for the future, escape, there’s a lot of anarchy in it.
Kita: I’ve noticed you kill a lot of ladies off.
Leisl: We did kill a lot of people, but it’s not always meant to be a lot of killing. A lot of it is hypothetical, a lot of it is metaphorical.
Brian: There is a lot of death, and madness, and suicide.
Leisl: If you take “The Incredible Sadness of Sonja”, on the surface, it’s all about that descent into extreme depression that ends up ultimately in her suicide. If you get into it metaphorically, it’s about the death of wisdom, true wisdom, through obtaining too much knowledge. You go to school and you learn and learn and learn, and you’re feeding yourself with all of this stuff that you’re getting in the media, and all of this knowledge that you’re putting into your head, and you forget what your true wisdom is, and where the true answers really are. And that’s what that song is really about. We’ve had a lot of people who say, “Oh that’s about me!” No, it’s really not. It’s the death of wisdom, intuition, because of gaining too much knowledge. So nothing is ever what it seems.
Kita: Since you guys are in charge, what is it like to manage so many people?
Leisl: The phrase, “Herding cats,” comes to mind. It gets really challenging to try and coordinate that many people who have that many external lives and that many other obligations and try to bring them all together, and then to go out and pull all the dancers into it too, and the other artists. It gets tricky. It’s worth it.
Brian: It’s a constant evolution in communication. You know, things work for awhile, and then they don’t work at all, and then sometimes they’re just extremely frustrating. When it’s clicking, it’ll work extremely well.
Kita: Does the music and everything else you’re doing bleed over into your day-to-day lives?
Leisl: Kind of the other way around, for me. The every day life leaks into the music. We’ve got some new songs that are really quite autobiographical, at their core.
Brian: It really becomes an outlet of reality, more than the other way around.
Kita: When you run a band, there’s certain business aspects you have to do. How does the business part work with the music?
Brian: I stay away from it and let her do it.
Leisl: We try to find new and unique things to throw out there. Anybody can have a tee shirt, but who writes a book? So he wrote a book that goes along with our CD and the music. The shot glasses… We like to do shots. So it makes sense.
Brian: We are a drinking band, so a lot of lyrics and merchandise are sort of centered around that.
Leisl: As far as the general business, like booking and everything, I’m a Capricorn, so it makes sense.
Brian: It’s been kind of a learning process. When we first started, we had this opportunity from this wonderful purple haired belly dancer who was doing this charity show, that kind of gave us our first break into this scene.
Leisl: Yeah, do you remember what her name was? She was really cute.
Brian: So she really did a tremendous amount for getting us in, and once she did that, and people started getting to know us and we started getting to know them, they gave us a little bit more behind us to be able to go to different clubs and venues. It’s daunting to go to a club and say, “We want to come play, and we have fourteen members in our band, and we have five dancers, or more, and you’ve never heard us before, and we don’t do rock and roll, but you want to book us.”
Leisl: But we promise we don’t suck!
Brian: Like I said, with the belly dance community who raised us so much, it did everything for us as far as giving us the option to play and become what we’ve been able to become. We owe a lot to that community.
Kita: When you started, you said it was pretty vague as far as goals might go, but what about now? What would your goals now be?
Leisl: I still want to play with Gogol Bordello. I still want to play at Zygette Festival, in Hungary, in the Roma tent. Personally, I want to sing with Annie Cobatch someday. And Romano Drom, I love his voice. But with the band, really, I just want it to stay fun.
Kita: I would say, from my experience, that you guys are pretty well known these days. So did you guys expect or could you ever have predicted how far you’ve come?
Leisl: No, I didn’t.
Brian: Especially where we never knew the objective when we were just starting out. It’s been really wonderful. I feel incredibly lucky and honored to be here, to have people know and recognize what we’ve done. It’s really cool, but it’s really hard to explain. Someone had told us they used one of our songs and choreographed a dance to it. What could be more amazing than that? I was so honored. I didn’t find out about till afterwards, but the fact that someone had done that was just so touching. I never would have imagined anything like this.
Kita: So you credit a large part of what you’re doing to the belly dance community, but what about the larger arts community? How have they been?
Leisl: I think they’ve been absolutely wonderful. We’ve got a show coming up in Ogden, next week, that we’ve got an artist from Salt Lake that will be coming up, and she will be painting live, there, while we are performing, and then she’ll be giving her painting away by the end of the night. The whole thing will be inspired by the energy of the night. So being embraced that way. And being embraced by the whole burner community on top of it. They’ve been absolutely wonderful too. I have nothing bad to say about any of it. It’s all so open and heartfelt.
Brian: That’s the thing that’s been really neat with this music and this community. Before having done this, I would have known nothing about something like this existing, or maybe just heard little snippets here and there. The whole artistic community, whether it’s dancers, or other performers, musicians and other artists…
Leisl: We still need to get a chef to come in and cook live while we’re performing.
Brian: It’s just been phenomenal. How many incredibly wonderfully talented and generous people are in this community. I’m just so proud to even be a small pocket of any of this. The passion that happens here is amazing. It used to be that Salt Lake was kind of a joke to the world, that we were kind of locked away in a little dark corner that never knew anything until the rest of the world had gone by for five or six years. And there’s some really cutting edge art in modeling, and fashion, and music that’s happening here.
Leisl: It’s almost like the rest of the world is catching up.
Brian: Yes! We’ve caught up to the rest of the world, and I really see that this city is going to become known for something very soon. You know, there was the grunge in Seattle, the metal in L.A., I do feel that this town is going to create something. Whether it’s music, or art, or performance, I don’t know. But there’s so many talented people here. I’m blown away by what this town has to offer.
Kita: What, for both of you, is your favorite part of what you’re doing?
Brian: The ouzo.
Leisl: Yes, the ouzo is amazing. Vodka. I do like vodka. There’s really good vodka up in Ogden. The Five Wives vodka is my favorite.
Brian: So out of everything we do, the funnest thing we have to offer is the drinking.
Leisl: Yeah, no.
Leisl: Seriously, I like that he’s pushed me into writing. I’d never written a song before. I wrote poetry when I was really young. I would write it and hide it under the bed so that nobody would ever read it. But he’s pushed me to doing that, so finding out that I do have these words and these expressions in me and that people like them! People relate to them. I have people come up to me and hug me and say that! I start bawling. I’m such a cry baby. So I’m the one crying at them, “Oh thank you, thank you!” It’s just really kind of sad and embarrassing sometimes. I like that challenge and that discovery that I had that in me. I had no idea.
Brian: Just being able to make a difference is neat.
Leisl: The random hugs in the produce aisle at the grocery store are kind of fun too.
Kita: I wanted to talk to you guys about that. So you have gotten recognition like that?
Leisl: Yep! And always when I’m looking my absolute worst.
Brian: Yeah, it’s in the weirdest places. The museum of natural arts, up at the U, we’ll run into someone. We walk into Settebello’s and the hostess there knows us.
Leisl: The checker at Harmon’s. He had to drag me up and down and introduce me to all of the other checker’s. It’s kind of weird. It’s cool, but it’s weird. And [Brian's] mom says, “I can’t take you anywhere! You and your purple hair!”
Brian: Yeah, the purple hair helps. Even if nothing else is memorable, the purple hair tends to stand out.
Leisl: You can relate.
Kita: So, you both mentioned that you were pretty much done with your other work before this happened. So if Juana Ghani had never come to be, and you had never stepped on the rat without the tail, what would you guys be doing right now, do you think?
Leisl: Cooking. Cleaning. Laundry.
Brian: I’d probably still be playing. I always have, so I don’t see that ever changing. Maybe the level of playing may not be as much. Maybe it would be more. It’s hard to say.
Leisl: Honestly, I may have been sucked back in to theater, but I don’t know that I’d be happy there.
Kita: Do you guys get nervous on stage?
Brian: No, not really. I get excited. But nervous? No. At first, we did a little bit, because some of the bands we played with. It made me a little nervous that way. When we first started playing, we were playing with a band called La Decollatage, and they’re just amazing. The players, and the band itself was very cutting edge. And I kind of placed them up on a pedestal a little bit, since I really admired them and the music they played. So playing a show with them, I might get a little bit nervous, but not so much nervous to play, but just that I would play well enough that people I admire would not think I was a bozo.
Kita: So what all goes into an average performance for you guys?
Leisl: Well, you know, it starts with making the contact with the venue or having the venue make the contact with me, which oddly happens more often than not. Then checking with everyone for availability, making sure we’ve got enough of the band that’s able to go and do the show, then confirm the date, negotiate the fees for it. Then lining up the dancers, putting together the set lists, and sometimes just putting together a simple forty-five minute set list can take me days to get it just how I want it to be. Then we get together with the band, and play the, “Oh let’s change this, and substitute this song for that one,” game, and then figure out who’s dancing to what. And then reconfirming with the venue, make sure everyone’s still on board, set up the times to come do the load ins, the sound check, set up all of that. It takes me two hours to get ready between hair and make up, and twenty minutes of putting on jewelry. And the other five minutes to get all the skirts in the car. Then we get there and do the load in and set up, do the sound check, and it takes hours just to do one set. And then after all of that, you’ve gotta tear down, load up, and go do the schmoozing and the dancing, and have fun. And all the drinking. And that’s the hardest part.
Brian: There’s that side of it. There’s also the more artistic side of it. You’ve got shows that are just strictly bar shows. And then there’s other shows, bigger festival shows, and bigger event shows that we’ve got to put together, and we always think we want to do more than we’re actually able to do. It’s frustrating, because there’s decorations, and art work, and banners.
Leisl: And all the PR!
Brian: And trying to choreograph everything that’s happening onstage with what the dancers are doing. I have all of these ideas, and never have enough time to pull them all together. But pulling together the band to act as an organic unit onstage, and to have that play around the dancers that are there. I’ve always liked to have dancers come onto the stage and interact with the band on the stage. So there’s a lot of thought that goes into that. What the audience members might look up and see. We’ve always wanted it to be more than just a bunch of people standing up onstage making music. We’ve always wanted it to be more of an event, or a happening. Something that’s a feast for your eyes, and your ears, a real feast for your sensations. It’s bigger than just music.
Kita: So what’s the recording process like?
Leisl: That was another first for me. So I think it’s really cool. I don’t know any of the technical stuff. They just sit me in front of a microphone and say, “Now, sing.” So we record that, and then they say, “Now, harmonies!” And then I make up harmonies. I find myself now, because of that experience, everything is coming at me in harmonies. Conversations can be five or six part harmonies with little counter melodies.
Brian: Recording is a fairly big part of what we do. In previous bands, we would all just sit in one room, and someone would throw out an idea. And then someone else would add in, and then someone else would, and it all became this collaboration, which was great. But I always struggled with it, because I could never enunciate my ideas well enough before the people around me would get tired of trying to understand what I was saying and would go on with it. So when I write music now, I start out by recording it. I can get a groove going, try something out, and if I don’t like it, I can go back and delete it and try something else. Different instruments, or different rhythms, and basically, I’ll record a demo of just me doing it, and then that gives her a chance to just write the lyrics and the melodies. And when we do that, it’s time for a presentation for the whole band. So it’s a song, but it doesn’t have everyone else’s flavors present in it yet. So once that goes out there, the rest of the band just fills their parts in there, and that creates what we play. So there’s that aspect to recording. And then the actual recording of a CD, which is pretty much the same, except everybody is already doing their own parts.
Leisl: And we really already have all that figured out by then.
Brian: It’s a fun experience, because you really get to hear what you’re doing. When you’re playing live, you get to hear less than half of what it is that anybody does. And so, being able to record is getting to listen and say, “Oh wow, you do that? I really need to pay more attention!” And then it’s just little technical things, like the mixing and mastering.
Kita: So do you find that it affects the writing at all, knowing that you have so many other people who have to be added in?
Brian: No, not really. It’s just everyone has their crayon in the box, and you put the picture out on the table, and everyone gets to color it the way they see it should be.
He is quiet at first, but there's definitely a spark in his eye, and you know that he is every bit the mad artist he is onstage. Don't make the mistake of assuming him to be one-note, either. He can switch up instruments without so much as a batting of the eyelash. Like many artists, he tells us that his obsession is a lifelong one, and we certainly hope that it doesn't end anytime soon.
Kita: How did you first get into music?
Byron: I can't really think of a time when I wasn't into music. I recall buying my first album when I was around 10. It was 'revolver' by the Beatles. In middle school I started out on trumpet because my uncle still had his from school and let me borrow it. I did not last long and moved to percussion which I played until I graduated high school. My first band was in high school with my cousin Nathan and my good friend Fezma. We played bluesy vampire rock and covered the Doors, Leonard Cohen and mostly originals.
Byron: I was going to school in Cedar City at SUU where I was in a folk band for awhile and decided if I wanted to play music I needed to move to a bigger city.
Kita: How did you end up in Salt Lake?
Kita: How did you find yourself in Juana Ghani?
Byron: I don't recall if my band was playing a show or I was just invited by Wallace (a good friend of mine whom I have been in many bands with) but I ended up on stage and really had a great time. After that I just kept showing up until they got used to me. :)
Kita: What were your goals when you started playing music? How about now?
Kita: What were your goals when you started playing music? How about now?
Byron: One of my goals was to always be playing music or at least always be in a band. I enjoy playing music at home by myself but ultimately I think music/art is a communication or conversation that shouts itself from our creative core. It's those beautiful moments when you find yourself in that conversation surrounded by musicians, dancers and a crowd of listeners that I live for. I find now that if I don't play music I start to tip into a bit of unhealthy madness. I much prefer the healthy music madness.
Kita: What have been your biggest struggles as an artist?
Byron: One of my struggles is also what I consider a huge strength of mine. I have Dyslexia and Dyscalculia. This makes it very hard for me to learn read and follow written music. I would always get down on myself because I could see other students around me be able to do it much quicker and easier than I could. Once I realized that being able to write/read music had absolutely NOTHING to do with MUSIC itself and was only a technology for recording/reproducing sound, I suddenly felt free to call myself a musician and I have tried to learn as many instruments as I can. I am lucky I live in a time where I don't need paper to save all the great musical conversation that I have been lucky to have.
Kita: How has being a part of Juana Ghani changed your perspective as a musician?
Byron:I don't think that being in JG has changed my perspective musically. But It is wonderful to play with so many talented souls that look at music as a communal experience. I have always loved folk/world group music and it is a really joy to play with all of them.
Kita: What other projects have you been/are you a part of?
Byron: Currently JG is my only really active project other than Bonnie Mad which is an Irish Rebel Folk band that plays every march for a few shows. I always have a few solo things I like to work on and post online but rarely play live with them. I have been lucky to be apart of some really great projects. Muses of Bedlam, QstandsforQ, La Décollatage, Thy Opiate Eye, Ashes of Fall, and a few others.
Kita: Do you tend to prefer rehearsal/creation or performance?
Byron: Hands down performance. But to me performance is just as much if not much more creative than rehearsal. I enjoy being thrown in to the sea of music and finding a great place in the storm to make a stand. I love band practice but I would rather just be on stage.
Kita :What's been your favourite part of your whole experience with Juana Ghani?
Byron: The friendship.
Kita: Do you ever get stage fright? If so, how do you deal with that?
Byron: I don't get stage fright but if I know I am going to be playing a show I can feel something building in me all day long. I try to make sure I have prepared all my equipment and such before it builds too big because I know that the closer I get to the show the more intense I am going to feel inside. Then I tend to forget things and get distracted by the wonderful storm breaking and howling in my body. Also for my day job I work specifically with clients concerning Phobias, PTSD, and trauma using E.F.T (emotional freedom techniques) so I find myself well prepared for any fright that might show up. :)
Byron: The musicians and artists I know in SLC are some of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever had the pleasure to associate with. We are all really lucky to be surrounded by not only talent but character as well. My only wish is that the community did not seem so segmented. I really think if we could find ways to get all the separate communities to get together we would have quite a wonderful revolution.
Kita: How do feel you and Juana Ghani have been received in Salt Lake?
Byron: Really well. JG is not what most people listen to in the car. I often hear people say we are unlike anything they have heard before and that thrills me. Where ever we play music no matter if it is in the park, on the street, in the bar, people dance. I think that's important.
Kita: Are there any new things you'd like to try as a musician?
Kita: Are there any new things you'd like to try as a musician?
Byron: I would love to tour and have these musical conversations with every corner of the Earth. :)
The newest member of Juana Ghani has only been a part of their fold for a few weeks, but immediately seems to have settled himself into the band with ease. In general, that's how Jeff seems to be, fitting in wherever he wants to easily. With a friendly, happy nature, it's no wonder at all. With a long background in music, his finding his way to Salt Lake seemed to be a strict matter of luck, but whose luck is hard to say, considering the gem that has been found for our favorite gypsy punk band.
An easy smile, long brown dreadlocks, and a set of drums seems to be all he needs in life. When you meet him, you immediately recall images and ideas of troubadours and wandering artists, and according to him, that's not so far off from his own background.
Happily, everyone else in the group seems to speak highly of him, and he of them, so I'm wagering he's here to stay. Check out upcoming Juana Ghani shows to catch him!
Kita: So how did you first get into music?
Jeff: I used to hit my schoolbooks, probably in the sixth grade. I put my text books on my brothers bed and some drumsticks and just went crazy. My parents were super anal and constricting about what we could listen to. They would ban certain radio stations and break CD's, so me and my brothers had to fucking fight for our right to listen to cool music. I think it was fighting against what I was told I couldn't listen to that made me love it even more. Punk music was one of the first types of music that I really grew to love and relate with. So maybe rebellion was what really got me into music.
Kita: So did that transform into taking classes?
Jeff: For the first ten years, I just jammed in the garage with my buddies or along to CD's, so I was all self taught. And then I started getting some musical opportunities which I realized called on me to know more, and display more technique and finesse, so I realized I needed to become more academic, and take a different approach. So about five years ago, I did start taking classes, college courses in drumming. The whole time I've lived in Salt Lake, I've been taking from Lynn Brown at Salt Lake Community College.
Kita: How did you end up in Salt Lake?
Jeff: Well, I was living in South Dakota, for about three years, just playing in a band and traveling around. That band kind of broke up and stopped making money, so I was broke. I wound up in Salt Lake kind of randomly. My family lives in Southern Idaho, but my car was broken down, and I needed some place that had public transportation, so it was the closest big city with a train.
Kita: So then how did you find Juana Ghani?
Jeff: Again, kind of randomly. I've been playing in bands since I moved here, just jumping around and trying to meet the right people and find good opportunities, and I had just quit a reggae band that I'd been playing with for about a year, and needed to keep myself busy. I actually ran into a post that Brian had made on this Facebook group, Utah Musicians, asking for drummers to play a lot. That post had been responded to a bunch of times, I had been drinking a few beers, and decided to say, "Yeah, I can play!" Brian hit me up and started asking me about what kind of music I was into and my influences, and it worked out really well.
Kita: So as you said, when you started, you were largely rebelling against the restrictions on you, but when you started playing in bands and such, what were your goals then?
Jeff: First, my goals were just to never sell out. It was all about the purity of music. That's part of the reason I didn't take an academic approach for so long. A lot of musicians are in the mind frame that their music won't be as pure if it's influenced by text books and studying classical pieces and learning the way that other people have done it. And in some cases, that's true. There's a lot of pure, soulful music out there made by people that can't read a lick of music. Les Claypool doesn't read music, Jimi Hendrix doesn't read music, or didn't read music. My goals were to be fucking pure punk rock, just all music.
Kita: Have they changed since then?
Jeff: Yes, absolutely. My goals now are to make money playing music.
Kita: How did the people you're closest to in your life respond to your choice?
Jeff: There's been mixed responses. My family has been really supportive the whole time. Super supportive. My parents have been really cool about me playing in bands, not making any money, but doing what I love to do. And some people have definitely shied away. They've seen it as something that's not as stable, which is about the same reaction that any artists get. Some people really love and respect that path, and some people think it's foolish.
Kita: So what have been your biggest struggles?
Jeff: Probably finding steady, paying work. It's been good sometimes. I've definitely made some money playing drums. It's hard to balance the need to make money with the need to just make art with good people. Sometimes those things just don't coincide. One really cool thing about Juana Ghani is that they are successful without having to be assholes. One thing I've learned from being in the music business is that it's a business. Sometimes dicks get on top. And you do need that business sense, and it's capitalism. In this country, music is as capitalistic as everything else, so that's probably been my biggest struggle. Balancing the music and the art of music and working with great people, but also, doing it in a competitive way and a way that gets you noticed. At least to get some free drinks or something.
Kita: How has your perspective changed since starting doing music?
Jeff: That's a vast question. My entire universe is different because of music. Better. In every way. Music is a universe unto itself. It's like eating mushrooms, and you can do it every day.
Kita: Being in a band, do you prefer sitting in the basement or wherever they practice, and practicing, or do you prefer being on stage?
Jeff: Well those are two different jobs, and they require two different sets of skills to be successful in those two areas. And they're both really important. I like them both equally. There is something beautiful about woodshedding it, just sitting down with your instrument and just sweating it. Putting those hours in and learning to read music. There's beauty in that. But in some ways, that's kind of sterile. I don't think people would really enjoy sitting and watching that process happen, because it's not exciting and it's not fucking glamorous. But there's beauty in it for sure. The other side is a whole different set of skills, being able to be onstage and being able to communicate with the other musicians on the spot, and being able to make it a performance. That's also beautiful and fun, and as a musician, I think it's important to hone both sets of skills. You can overpractice something, but you can definitely under practice too.
Kita: So what's your favorite part of being in Juana Ghani?
Jeff: Oh, there's a lot of my favorite parts. I love the communal aspect of the music. Not just the fact that there's a lot of people involved in the music, all the dancers and ten musicians, but the whole vibe of the songs, the themes, the lyrics and the melodies. They all really lend themselves to music that can be created to music being created by a whole community. Everyone can sing along. Some of the really bad experiences I've had playing music, is when it gets involved in the cliques and elitists, and that sucks. That ruins art really quickly. So that's a great thing about Juana Ghani. There's a group of great artists, top caliber artists, and it's so not pretentious and so open and inviting, that's my favorite part about it.
Kita: So do you get stage fright?
Jeff: I still do. I've played over five hundred performances, in the fifteen years I've been playing drums, and I still do.
Kita: What do you think of the Salt Lake arts community?
Jeff: I think it's incredible. I've noticed that it's disproportionate- the number of great artists to its size. There's a lot of homes in Salt Lake, be it for whatever reason, that have pianos in them, and that just opens the doorway to music and dance. I think it's righteous, especially for the size.
Kita: I know it's been only for a few shows so far, but when you're performing with Juana Ghani, how do you feel the scene here receives them?
Jeff: They definitely get received better than any band I've played in here. I've played in six bands, and really gigged, you know. And in fact, I've heard from other bands, touring and the like, that come through here and say that Salt Lake is a really tough spot to get people to dance. If you can get a few people on the dance floor in Salt Lake, you're killing it. And Juana Ghani definitely moves the asses.
Kita: Are you currently involved in any other projects?
Jeff: Yes. I play in a reggae band with my buddies called Hemptations, we actually played last night and have another gig tonight at the Complex. It's really fun vibes. We write original reggae music.
Kita: Is there anything you want to try as a musician that you haven't done yet?
Jeff: I'm really interested in musical theater. I would really like to be involved in some type of a musical theater type band where the musicians are doing sound effects, and there's a whole story line where there are people are acting and telling jokes.
As far as Juana Ghani goes, she is their sousaphone player. She tells me her sousaphone is tiny, as they go, and yet, it dwarfs her. She is not a limited person, by any means. Singing, drawing, dancing, and LARPing are just a few of her many interests. With an intellectual air, she definitely seems like the sort of person who easily switches from interest to interest and picks up new skills with ease.
It's no wonder that she found herself in Juana Ghani, and I can vouch that all parties are better off for it. Here's to seeing more of her lovely face, hidden as she is behind that giant instrument, on the stages of Salt Lake in 2014.
Kita: What first interested you in music?
Jennifer: It's been a long time. I grew up with musical parents. I remember learning a song in kindergarten, so I started with singing. I did some singing in elementary school, and then in the fifth grade, I started on the clarinet. I started to learn with my hands the wrong way, and I didn't realize they were the wrong way because we started with just the easy simple holes, and it wasn't until we started with the keys on the bottom and my pinky wouldn't reach that I went, "How do you do this?" So then I learned it again. And then I got to teach some newcomers, so I had to stay one lesson ahead of them all the time, which sort of spurred me into practicing a little more. I was pretty good, a pretty high chair all the way up until high school, and then people from more schools came in, and I wasn't as good as everyone, so I had to try even harder. Then I came to college, and I got clobbered. It was really really competitive. That's when I decided that was probably not what I was going to do for my major after all, but it was fun. I joined the marching band, since I wasn't entirely sure that I was going to give up music altogether, I went for the music education program for a little bit. And that's when I took the class where I picked up the sousaphone. Less literally, and more figuratively, I couldn't pick it up to begin with. I had to put it on the floor, and then prop it up and then stand into it. I got much better, and then the next year I got to be section leader. I kept singing through some of that. I did it through high school, not so much in college. I did pick it up again.
Kita: How did you get involved with Juana Ghani?
Jennifer: The impression that I have is that Brian Bonnell was probably clicking through the photos of the Black Box Preview, where Juana Ghani played, and then happened to accidentally click on me instead of going through that, and saw me playing the sousaphone. So I got this random Facebook message saying, "This may seem like a random question, but do you play the sousaphone?" And I wrote back, "Yes, strange-person-that-I-don't-know-who-you-are. I do!" It took several months to cajole me into trying more, and then I went crazy and bought my own sousaphone off the internet.
Kita: So do you prefer the technical side of rehearsing, or are you more interested in the performance?
Jennifer: Well performing is fun, but it's not as fun if you don't know what you're doing. So I like rehearsal, and I like this rehearsal style. Since a bunch of what I did with the sousaphone was marching band and we had to memorize our music to go on the field, I was pretty used to playing without music. And when you don't even start with music, that pretty much means making it up, which is a lot freer. I do like concert band setting as well, where you have all the notes and music, and you follow all the notes and music, and you have it all set out and need to know what everything means, but that is not what this is. So that part is fun. And then actually performing to use it and be crazy around other people is fun. Everything is crazy all the time.
Kita: How have you enjoyed the arts community that Juana Ghani has exposed you to?
Jennifer: I've liked pretty much everywhere I've been. I've sensed drama sometimes, but usually it's floating up in the upper planning stages, and so I don't really have to deal with it. Usually when things make it down to me, it's already resolved.
Kita: As an artist, in general, what are your biggest struggles?
Jennifer: Probably practicing. I have a thing where I'm not super excited about people listening to me while I practice. While I was growing up, I would go practice in my room. If my parents ever commented through the door, I was pretty much done practicing. Even if they told me I was great, I didn't like it. I also don't like doing that a lot in my apartment complex either, because there are a bunch of shared walls. So I get to motivate myself, check the time, and tell myself, "It's okay, it's two in the afternoon. People should be awake, I shouldn't be bothering them while I do this." I've never gotten, "Hey! Sousaphone player!" Practicing on my own, out loud, is a tough thing. I can practice the motions, the finger movements, and the words, in my head. But at some point you've just got to make the music. It's less impressive when it's silent.
Kita: Usually. I would be really disappointed if I paid to go to a concert and the musicians just made hand motions.
Jennifer: But we could look really intense. It would be like one giant symphonic mime.
Kita: So what are your goals for the next year or so?
Kita: Would you say you have a hard time managing the band versus the rest of life?
Jennifer: I don't have a whole lot of day-to-day stuff. I do have trouble balancing time with my boyfriend and art stuff. Part of it is because he's an archaeologist so he works out of state for a couple weeks at a time, during which time I get really into the band, and choir, and LARPing and everything. Then he comes back, and I'm off doing all these things, and he never gets to see me, even though we're living in the same house.
Kita: Would you say that he and everyone else in your life has been supportive?
Jennifer: They want more free time, and they want me to spend time with them, but mostly, they're saying, "Pick one thing you like and then do it. Don't pick everything you like and ignore me."
Kita: If you weren't doing everything you're doing, what do you think you'd be doing?
Jennifer: Let's see. Everyone loses their hearing, so I don't have any reason to play music or sing anymore. Well then, pretty much everyone would have to not see for me to not dance anymore. Okay, so if there were some epidemic of brain tumors or something, and I didn't have to be conservative with money, I would travel some more. Buy a house where I could have pets. I like pets. My traveling hamster companion with a very small traveling bag. There are other things I haven't done in awhile because I haven't had any reason to get into them, but I like the idea of woodworking. That's the one that came to mind, and I forgot the rest, so the end!
Jennifer: Not anymore. And I don't remember if I ever did. I get excited, but it's never gotten to the point of not being able to function. I do get flustered, occasionally, and I'll do poorly for a little bit, until I calm down and think about it again.
To check out more, friend this awesome band on Facebook! https://www.facebook.com/juanaghani.official
Come back next week for even more!