Musician Derek Jennings of Ventura talks about songwriting, family, the Beatles, his former band The Return, and why his new record “Bummertown” is not a bummer.
Polly: What’s your Ventura history?
Derek: I was born in Camarillo actually, two cities away, about 5 minutes on a good day. I was born at Pleasant Valley hospital and lived in Camarillo ‘til I was about 17/18, I went to high school in Oxnard and I frequented Ventura Theater all through those years, just going to see shows so I’m no stranger to the area.
Polly: Was it a conscious decision to become a musician or was that something like the music chose you?
Derek: It’s somewhere in the middle. I think it’s where both of those two things meet. My dad was a big influence on me in that he would always have music playing. The biggest thing I remember was “Breakfast with the Beatles”. I forget what radio station but every Sunday morning he would just turn on the radio and he’d let it play, you know, as my parents cleaned the house, chores, and me and my brother would fool around but I’ll always remember that as well as the radio just being on pretty much non-stop. There was a lot of classic rock so I grew up on all the same songs that my dad grew up with when he was a teenager. Zeppelin, Stones, Beatles so that was mine and I’m sure like a lot of people the big introduction to music. Where it changed is my dad also had a couple guitars lying around the house. He had a steel string acoustic and a classical nylon string, and I liked to play with the nylon strings because it wouldn’t hurt my fingers as much. When I was about 14 I decided to actually pick it up and try to figure out how it worked. So at that point once I was able to figure it out it wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t necessarily difficult either. I was able to play it and was really excited and that’s kinda where those two things meet. The music chose me…and then I chose the music.
Polly: Who inspires you? I know you mentioned your dad and the Beatles, which I want to get back to you when we start talking about “Bummertown”. Who inspired your songwriting?
Derek: I have always looked up to those old rock stars like the Beatles, Stones and then when I was learning to play guitar it was guitarists Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, they really shaped and molded the way I wanted to play. It was after high school with artists like Pavement and Elliot Smith, some of the more indie rock bands that opened my eyes to the songwriting. Not that the Beatles, who were like the greatest songwriters, but being so young I wasn’t quite ready for that. So there’s kinda like two sides to the influence. It’s the playing and the wanting to be a rock star you know, not necessarily being famous but definitely well known. I want to be a master of my craft more than wanting to be famous. When I realized I could spend a little bit more time and actually write a song is when I started listening to Elliot Smith and actually going back and digging deeper in to those early influences and looking at how they wrote songs and how they came about, deconstructing those songs that I grew up with and finding a lot more meaning in them.
Polly: What do you think about writing a song, does it come naturally? Is it music first and then lyrics?
Derek: I think for me it’s always been music first. I always usually start with guitar in hand, that’s my main instrument, and then the lyrics. The riff tells me what kind of lyrics. Sometimes I’ll give it some more thought but it’s usually the song and the emotion, the tone of the song, that’s when I decide to put lyrics to it.
Polly: You’re basically a self taught musician, have you ever gone to music school?
Derek: No, like I mentioned before when I was 14 I picked up the guitar and I think the first song I tried to learn was a Green Day song they were the big acts, you know, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins. I’m a 90s kid at heart. In fact I watched a biography on Kurt Cobain last night got nostalgic. I think it was a Green Day “hidden” song on one of their records, it was like 3 notes, and I said, “I liked to play this”. I learned to play it, the rest came from there. Then when I was 15 someone my father worked with was a blues guitarist. A weekend warrior you know, he’d play on the weekends. So I took maybe 3 guitar lessons from him all of which I asked him to tab out Nirvana songs, a complete waste of his time, haha he did it you know of course and we paid for his time. But that was the also first time I played his beautiful vintage Gibson Les Paul which I damn near dropped because they’re so heavy and so amazing. So yeah, I am self taught and I totally wasted his time. But he did show me those songs and a few other things and it opened my eyes even more so I can’t I say I didn’t take anything away from that. It was definitely a good experience.
Polly: Let’s talk about the record.
Polly: There are four songs on the record. Did you originally go in thinking okay I’m going to lay down four songs and how did that evolve?
Derek: I as you know I had won the Zoey’s Ones to Watch and I contacted Shane (Alexander) who agreed to help me produce the record. When I think about EP I think 4 or 5 songs and we both agreed 4 songs would be good with the time it would take, that was the best way to go. I had a short list of songs that I had played for years, even when Zoey’s was on Main.
Polly: I have heard a fast version of Quicksand (song 1 on the EP) was that one of the early songs?
Derek: Quicksand is, of all the songs, actually is the only one that hadn’t been written recently. Its a couple years old. I recorded it as an instrumental while I was living in LA and it’s still one of my favorite songs. It’s kind of an Americana style instrumental and that’s something I’ve always loved growing up. Like old Fleetwood Mac. I love instrumentals as much as I love to sing. If I could I’d write instrumentals all the time.
Polly: You’ve got a great guitar style I really enjoy watching and listening to you play the guitar but I also love your songs.
Derek: Oh thank you. I don’t know where that came from…
Derek: I thought about that the other day and I tend to bring in…umm, the way I hit the strings it’s like my own built in rhythm like percussion. I noticed that recording the record and at the very beginning of Quicksand it basically starts out with the guitar strumming and it almost sounds like a drum roll intro. Yeah, I love it, I don’t know where it came from but I’ll take it. It’s something that developed.
Polly: Your record is very reminiscent of 70’s British pop, Beatlesque, Paul McCartney. Does that sound speak to you? Do you hear that? Do you feel that?
Derek: Yes absolutely, I’ve always been the biggest fan of John Lennon’s lyrics but Paul McCartney’s music, especially his The Ram record… which I’m sure a lot of people site as a big influence. I recently read that when it came out it was kind of a flop. People didn’t like it, they didn’t get it. For me I grew up hearing like “Uncle Albert”, he mixes 3 songs into one long song and that blew my mind! That’s the most amazing thing to me. I’ll also to do that. I’ll take 2 old songs and kind of meld them together. That’s how Quicksand came about. It was an instrumental at first with a lead guitar playing over it and I kind of mimicked what the lead guitar was playing and started singing over it… and unfortunately in 2011 my dad passed away.
Polly: I was going to ask you about you dad because of the lyrics in that song.
Derek: It was unexpected he’d been sick for a while he had heart complications from his time in Vietnam and he also battled with alcoholism and I wouldn’t say drug addiction but he liked to smoke pot. And he couldn’t have one without the other. Definitely a sad addiction and he got sick. So I don’t think… he never really quit or slowed down. It got to a point where he needed to exercise and he wouldn’t even get up and take a walk. He lived up in Northern Calif. He moved up there to help my brother. My brother has a couple little girls and was going through a rough patch with his ex-wife so my dad moved up there to help him out. My dad just kind of settled. They have a really good VA hospital up there. They really took care of him but he couldn’t take care of himself. So when he passed away it wasn’t a surprise but it was sudden. I shot up there and all he really had left was this old guitar. A beautiful Epiphone late 70’s I believe. I took that and re-wrote Quicksand with his life in mind.
Derek: Yeah, his biggest regret was that his father never got to see me. I’m the first born. His dad passed away not even a month before I was born. I’m glad he got to see pictures and to talk to my daughter. He kind of fulfilled his wish to live long enough. At the same time my grandfather also died due to alcoholism and he was 50 years old, really young. My dad had a self fulfilling prophecy so when he turned 50 he did really well, but he died at 63. He had a good decade on his pops but a lot of that was downhill. That’s how that story came about, him to being able to at least know his grandchild. He was a really good grandpa.
Polly: It is a great tribute to your dad, lovely lyrics, the melody is amazing and you play it so well.
Derek: It gave me a lot of closure and helped me mentally.
Polly: The song “Don’t Forget About Me” was collaboration with you and musician Shane (Alexander). How was that?
Derek: That was great. The beauty of collaboration and songwriting… that’s the one thing I haven’t done since the split up of my band, to really sit down with other people and play music. And sitting down with him was brilliant because Shane is absolutely brilliant, his knee jerk reactions are just perfect. I had a short list of songs I wanted to do and most were 2, 3, 4 years old and I had this idea of a chorus that just popped out …”road your bike back home…” but I had it in double time with all the chord changes and I wanted it to be this big production and I showed it to him, showed him the intro, and I didn’t have much, I had a verse and a chorus. He just said “Yes!” and he kind of was giving me some pointers and we were working on it and I told him I really liked this song and we shook hands, I said let’s co-write this. He was really into it and I didn’t want to take the time to write the song myself otherwise it would never have made the record. Nor would it have sounded as great without his help. So we sat in his kitchen and wrote the song right then and there. We wrote the melodies and the lyrics, barring a little bit of editing here and there that song was written in about 30 mins. That was a lot of fun. That came out of spontaneity. The only idea I really had was kind of a mixture of two time periods the innocence of when you’re a kid… I used to ride my bike a lot and when I met my wife, I met her through bike riding. On our first date we went on a bike ride. So I meshed those two ideas together and Shane helped me develop that.
Polly: So it’s a song about and for your wife Kat.
Derek: Yes, it’s for my wife with that melancholy, that childhood thing, because I think that draws a lot more people in. I think everyone can on some aspect relate to that rather than me coming out and being all you know lovey dovey to my wife haha, but I really am, I really am.
Polly: Let’s talk about your family.
Polly: If you want to.
Derek: No, absolutely.
Polly: Knowing you I feel that your family is your center, your central purpose of why you do what you do.
Derek: Growing up I always thought I’d play music. Even when I got stuck in a rut with my day job I’d always play music as a habit. But when my kids were born I was proven so wrong because they absolutely have become my reason for living… the meaning of my life are the kids. And it’s so crazy and so corny but it’s absolutely true. They are so brilliant and they are so little versions of me and my wife and I see my dad, my mom, my mother in law. I see everything in them. It’s so crazy watching them grow up. And being able to show them stuff, things, music, instruments, art it’s so much fun. Everything I do is for them and I don’t wake up in the morning without wondering how I’m going to better their lives as best I can.
Polly: So moving forward how do you balance that being a musician and trying to get your career going having a family?
Derek: It’s going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done because I am a musician. I’m a hard dedicated worker at what I do and if given a task I will do it. But in my heart I want to be a musician and that’s really the end of my abilities. Like I said it is going to be the hardest thing I’ll ever do. Looking at someone like Shane he’s been a big mentor and my guide as to what I’d like to do with my music. I see how hard he’s worked. That guy is a hard worker. That’s always been really difficult for me. I’m the you know the guy, give me a guitar, I’ll write the songs, but hire me someone to book me a tour or get me something to drink because if I start recording in my apartment, on the rare days I get to go home I fiddle around, I won’t eat or drink anything because I don’t know how to take care of myself. So it’s going to be a long road. But life has opened my eyes to what I can do and I’m going to take that and run with it. I’m gonna work as hard as I can and I’d love to phase out the day job aspect of it because it’s really draining. And I don’t think anyone in life should have to settle for anything less in what they really want to do. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Polly: And you’ve got the support of your wife…
Derek: Yes absolutely, she’s really supportive. She’s always trying to help me out whether it’s shopping for a new guitar, or trying to get an idea on a word that rhymes. She’s super supportive, my family has always been, and my kids…they love music.
Polly: They are adorable.
Derek: Yeah, that’s an understatement, they are really something else.
Polly: Your goals, ambitions – you’re looking at playing out more, doing tours?
Derek: Yeah, I forget that I’m a lead man at heart. I would love to be able to write music for film, TV, other people. I foresee myself doing that in the future but I’m probably pretty naïve about it. I don’t know how that world works. I’ve been told that’s a whole different machine. I would like to share, I write a lot, and I’d like to collaborate but at the end of the day I’d love to be on the road, playing shows, playing live music, that’s really what I like to do. I’d go out and play on the street if I wasn’t so terrified of doing so. Again that takes me back to the day job thing. It’s so draining when you have a song idea stuck in your head and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about that. I think we should all be able to step away when we need to. Again that’s going to be difficult. But I would like to play more live music, all the time, every time…haha
Polly: Your newest record is called Bummertown so let’s just get that out of the way. Why Bummertown?
Derek: Bummertown (song 3) came after Quicksand. It’s just something I would say. It’s just a saying you know like oh, we’re out of food, bummertown. Haha, and I love it. My dad comes from the the early 70’s you know, “bummer”. He used to always say “bummer, I love it, so cool”. And the way I use it myself is tongue in cheek you know I mean things are always going to be bummertown but there is always some kind of a silver lining. Somebody asked me “is your record going to depress me?” I said absolutely not. It all kind of turns around on itself, things may be bad but there is always a silver lining. Just depends on how you look at it.
Polly: It does have that you know, oh man this is gonna to be a bummer, haha.
Derek: Haha that’s just how I am, black comedy. I do try to focus on the more positive aspects, the lighter side of a dark story. That song just kinda came about. I don’t know what it was…when my band split up, I started playing solo more, I’d play Zoey’s a lot. You kept having me back, which was great, I don’t know why but you kept having me back, so that was a lot of fun. And then I met my wife. We made a decision to move to LA. I felt like the music scene in Ventura, I wasn’t connecting with anyone like before when I was in a band. I felt almost alienated but I probably did it to myself. I probably dug in. I played less and less, but I’ve always written. Moved to LA, still wrote, I didn’t really connect with anyone there.
Polly: Did you play shows in LA?
Derek: Here and there. I’d hook up with people from Ventura, old friends, from older bands. And again I didn’t try anything new. This is another thing about me. My wife and I got pregnant and coincidentally my old job needed me and I needed a job so we moved back to Ventura. I just kind of laid low. I was day job dad. And I was happy with that. But I was always writing. And then of course you called me and kinda got me out of my shell. Then at that point there wasn’t a lot of places for me to play so it was great to have a place. Bummertown came about when I lived in LA and it was about not connecting and the revelation that it’s nobody else’s fault but my own.
Polly: Song 4 “A light That Still Remains” was that a last minute?
Derek: Yes, originally we were going to go with “Waiting for A Train” which everyone knows is “my song” and I will probably re-visit that when I do an album. I kind of had an idea and I showed Shane and again, his reaction you can’t beat it. When you see that look on his face and he’s into it there’s no going back. He’s going to make me work now. He’s gonna make me finish this fucking song…
Polly: Right, you’ve released the Kraken.
Derek: Yeah, haha, I had no other ideas for that song. We had a start date and I knew I would have to have the song completed. You know there wasn’t really any pressure other than from myself so that song came about sitting in my living room. I was fortunate enough to have an apartment which has kind of a limited view of the ocean. So it’s really nice, as luck would have it there was a storm and it knocked down the neighbor’s tree giving us a beautiful view of the ocean.
Derek: Haha, so the sun was setting and I was fiddling around, I had my guitar and like I said before, the music comes first. I had a little guitar riff that I really, really liked and I just went basic – sun, setting, boom I’ll start there. The song came about with no real story behind it so I created a story. It’s basically, and I’ve never really felt this way. I’m really connected to my family but the song was about having one foot out the door. You’ve got your responsibilities but there’s a whole other world out there. It’s kinda playing on the…
Derek: Yes, there’s always more. You have your responsibilities but you have your yearnings. It kind of plays off that and I think everyone in the back of their minds has had those feelings at one time or another. It’s not about being… untrue. It’s just about those feelings and to deny that, is to be untrue, you know? We are all human. It took me a while to get there but yes, we are only human and that’s what that song is about.
Polly: Well, it’s so pretty.
Derek: Working with Shane has been amazing because when he heard me play he said wow this is music that I like. Working with him and seeing his enthusiasm it made it all that much easier I was able to be myself and I was able to write what I wanted to write, no pressure at all, he’s a pretty mellow guy.
Polly: But he’s a task master.
Derek: Absolutely, and like I said I don’ t know if I’ll ever be able to have that discipline but he is someone who knows what he wants. I’ve always been jealous of people who have that ability to know what they want. To wake up in the morning and say I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this and I’m going to check off all my boxes you know. I get up in the morning and say oh what do you want to do today, oh I don’t know what do you want to do today? Haha.
Derek: I’m really fortunate to have support and a lot of good friends, I think that will help me find my way. It’s nice to be able to be doing this again and I’m not naïve at all when it comes to dues. I absolutely have to pay my dues all over again. As I said I was in a band for 10 years.
Polly: Yes, let’s talk about that.
Derek: I was in a band called The Return and we were kind of in the vein of the Police and The Clash but we had a little bit more post rock influences, like the band Fugazi and influences from some of our peers who are still around today. We started out as a SKA band in high school and it whittled down to the 3 core members. Myself, Justin Dempsey, who currently plays with Stop Breathing who was just on tour with the Pullmen sitting in on drums. He’s really continued playing music on his own and Justin is absolutely a juggernaut on the drums and Andrew Gavigan played bass. Andrew actually doesn’t play music anymore but is a very successful fitness equipment entrepreneur and has done very well for himself. The 3 of us initially decided to go it on our own. We set up all our own tours, toured around the country for 6 years, we were invited on tour over to the UK in 2006 with RX Bandits they wanted us to come. We got on Myspace, sent out a plea saying we need a driver for us in the UK and someone came back and said he’d do it. So in true punk fashion we drove around the UK and toured in a hatchback. They drive the smallest cars over there. It went really well and we recorded 4 full length records, that we are all super proud of them. After a while we couldn’t quite get to the next level even though we had the talent, we had the songs but I think is was hard to come back after every tour and start over. How do you pay rent? The bane of all touring musicians is – what do you do when you come back from tour? You just want to go right back out on tour because that’s all you know, that’s how you sustain. It finally came to a head. No bad feelings but we all kind of looked at each other one day and Andrew, not that he was the catalyst or anything because it was all in our heads, said “I don’t know if I want to do this anymore”. He said, “I want to move to New York, I want to do something different”. And there was no push back.
Justin and I just looked at each other and we kind of agreed. There was not “What!?” “What are you thinking?” There was no animosity. It was just, wow, we’re so glad you said that.
Derek: And you know the months after we were really regretful and remorseful because that’s all we wanted to do but we didn’t do anything to continue. So that whole thing when I say I paid my dues I literally feel like I have. We worked really hard, did everything on our own, printed our own T-shirts, we did have a record label, who was just one person Matt Martin, he was like the 5th Beatle or the 4th Return but we wouldn’t have been able to do anything without him. Between the 4 of us we did everything ourselves. And it was really great and it was really rewarding but it was really hard. I’m not going to play dumb when I say this time around I’m going to know that I’m going to have to pay my dues, again. I’m not expecting anything from this F’d up world. I know that I’ve been playing for awhile and I could be like hey, where’s my record contract and where’s my money but I would like to think that I’m too humble to do that. Because I know there are a lot of hard working people out there that have been doing it for a long time. They totally deserve it and for some they’re never going to get it and that’s too bad. I don’t want to be one of those people. I’m really going to work for it and hopefully get my break somewhere along the way. In the meantime I’ll still work and I’ll still be dad and I’ll always write. That’s my goal to somehow play music. Then again I should probably compartmentalize that goal cause of ”what do you want to do? I don’t know what do you want to do?” It’s going to be much more difficult. I should probably set some goals and I have. I’d like to set up a tour I’d love to release a full length record and just get out on the road.
Polly: And eventually do this as a full time job.
Derek: Absolutely, I’m living vicariously through Lee Koch. He’s just been with his family on the road in a trailer and that’s just beautiful to me I’d love to do that. And his shows are not at huge venues but he’s on the road and he’s been playing and he has no hang ups and at any moment he can stop and turn the car around somewhere else and he’s got his family with him, his guitar and so I’ve been closely monitoring that.
Polly: You know it’s possible.
Derek: That’s what I learned when you go on tour, you set it up and stay in peoples homes and you meet and become friends and play shows and that’s where the magic happens. And my wife, she’d be there in a heartbeat. If I came out and said out of the blue, you know it’d be really cool if we could just get the F out of here and before I’m even done talking, she’s like already on Craigslist looking for a trailer. She’s very into it. But I’d love that, to go around the country and play music and meet people. That’s probably not great for being a lucrative rock star because all I’d want to do is play free shows but I’m sure there’s a way to meet in the middle. To at least do the day to day and be happy.