tête-à-tête: jonathan berlin

I’d like you people to meet my friend, Jonathan Berlin. I’ve known Jonathan for a long time. We both grew up in Jacksonville, Florida and hung out in some of the same places. We played together at church sometimes. We ate at the same indi-asian vegan hotspots. we read the same poetry… the usual. Then I moved away and he turned into one of the most talented producer/singer/songwriter/musicians that I know. What a jerk. He currently fronts the lovely psychedelic rock band, Sunbears! as well as a whole lot of other things that we will talk about later. His music has been a big inspiration to me. And he’s a nice fellow. And makes Jacksonville proud, I’m sure.

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Hi, Jonathan.

Hi, James. How are you??

I’m fine, thanks. What are you doing?

At the moment, I’m listening to Sea Change by Beck and editing new album artwork for the new SUNBEARS! record. Ha ha! How about you??

I’m listening to Elton John sing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and watching my 3 year old, Stetson, sit and watch the LP spin around. He loves Elton John. Although he calls him Uncle Jon. which is cute and adorable.

I love the first SUNBEARS! record. A lot. You’ve just finished up your new LP, which I’ve heard and also love. It is a bit of a departure from the first. What was the process like for making the new record?

Yeah! You’re right about it being a bit different. One thing that really contributed to that was that I wrote everything on guitar this time around. In the past I’ve usually sat at my computer with a midi controller and a couple synths/drum machines, writing as I’m “producing.” This time, I just tried to write songs, songs that I could play on an acoustic guitar and not need a bunch of crazy technology stuff to pull them off.

You are tall. How tall are you?

I’m like, 6’2½… Not too tall, I don’t think. But yeah, I guess I’m taller than you, huh? Ha ha! How’s it feel to be shorter than your younger brother, Jon Duke? Or wait, is he older??? I can never remember.

Jon is a little taller. And younger. Yes. Thanks.

I think you can play every instrument.

Ha ha! Not true! I’m really not very good at any one thing. I just sort of hack away a bit at everything… you know? How many different kinds of instruments do you play, James?

I can play the electric guitar and the acoustic guitar. and the electric acoustic guitar. And lapsteel. And I pretend to play pedal steel. The electric bass guitar. And piano when I was 12. I played that weird looking thing that you slap with you hand and it makes it… a vibraslap… on the new JMM record. That counts. I can play other stuff too.

Did you grow up in a musical family? What was your first instrument?

I did! My Mother and Father both play guitar and sing. My Father plays bass really really well too. He taught me everything that I needed to know about music. I remember being about 3 or 4 years old, listening to my Father play “Pipeline” by the Ventures and “Michelle” by The Beatles on guitar, and always wanted to play. But my first instrument was the violin, which I started at 4. I didn’t stick with it long. I switched to piano right after that. I still have my violin, though… it’s cool!

How about you, James? At what age did you start chopping away at the guitar??

I began shredding around 13. But I started on the recorder when I was 9. I jammed on the recorder and then started taking piano lessons which, you know, I hated. I took lessons from my next door neighbor who just happened to be the harpist (is that a word?) at the big First Baptist Church in downtown Jacksonville. The one with the escalators. Anyways. I took lessons for a while. I learned everything she taught me by ear when I was supposed to be reading the music. I’d just play it and stare at the sheet music like I was actually reading it! I lost interest sometime after, or maybe during, my second piano recital. I have this really vivid memory of sitting in the front row waiting for my turn to go up as my neighborhood pal, Perry, was playing a rousing rendition of Lavender Blue, and being so bored and miserable. I started skipping my lessons after that and acting like “oh man! I totes’ forgot, mom!” when my parents would come find me playing with my friends. I wish I had taken it seriously. I can still pick chords out and play a little, but nothing great. I wish I could play for real.

Your music is very layered with lots of different parts and instruments. How do you approach writing parts for your music?

For our latest record, I approached things from a very simple beginning. Everything was all about wanting to write a good song. Something easy to sing! I sort of ignored a lot of the other stuff until it was time to really sit down and do that. In the past, I’ve focus a lot on “the sound” and have always pictured an end result, from the very beginning. I’ve written melodies to sounds in the past. This time I wanted to make sounds from the melodies.

You know, I’ve always been curious how you come up with your guitar sounds, can you tell me a little bit about your style??

When I’m in the studio I try to listen to the song and see what I hear. Sometimes I’ll hear a melody. I start playing it and changing it and figuring out where exactly it fits. I try to figure out where it should sit, timing wise. In some cases all you have to do is change what beat a line comes in on and it blows your mind. An okay part will become an amazing part. Sometimes I’ll see something in my mind that makes me think of a way to play the guitar. For example, on the new JMM record there is a song called “Sheet Of Night”. On the choruses I play a double stop bend part on the guitar. When we were doing pre-production that was the first time I had heard that song so I was listening through and immediately saw in my mind my fingers doing that. Way before I had any notes in my head. So I knew I wanted to do some kind of bendy thing. That sounds weird. Another cool thing was we were all standing in a circle in the tracking room and my brother, Jon, was next to me. He was giving some ideas and he said, “and then on the chorus James should just go off”. So I said “okay I have an idea”. So I started figuring out what I saw in my head. It came together in really quick and I had my part. Other times I hear a sound that is sort of unrelated to particular notes and more about atmosphere. So I start turning on pedals and turning knobs. Changing guitars, different amps… I try not to make it a difficult thing. If it’s not fun and interesting then what’s the point? On one song I told Jeremy Griffith I wanted my guitar to sound like stars! He didn’t even laugh at me. He just said, “Oh, then we need to do stereo guitars on this one and use the amp’s tremolo”.  It’s kind of hard for me to verbalize what I do, because I see shapes, colors, pictures, lasers… and stars apparently. but that’s how it happens for me most of the time. I just try to play what I see and/or hear in my head.

You do a lot of producing as well. What is your approach when working with an artist? Do you do a lot of pre-production or are you more spontaneous, in the moment?

Depends on the project, I suppose. Usually the more ROCK or ELECTRONIC projects are more thought out from the beginning. I’ve even taken people’s demos and redemo’d them with all the production ideas in place, and then we’d just go in and lay down guitar, bass, vox, etc… Then there’s records that have been more, I guess some people would call them “bluegrass.” There wasn’t much to think out before hand. I just kind of went with it. Wrote parts as I went, you know??

Yeah, Jonathan. I know! You are friends and work with the Jesus Culture guys. How did you get connected with them?

I’ve been friends with the JC crew for a few years now. We often make (other) records together. I probably talk to Jeffrey and Brandon the most often these days. They are awesome awesome people! I got to know them through a friend of mine, Jeremy Edwardson of The Myriad fame, and we’ve been making music ever since. Brandon and I play online video games together often. Ha ha!

I like you with long hair.

Thanks man! I’ve seen your hair go through a few transformations through the years. Is your current hairstyle your favorite yet??

I don’t know. You also have a beard. I am completely unable to grow a beard. did you know that? I can’t do it. I end up looking like a 13 year old boy trying to grow a mustache. It’s sad but I’ve come to terms with it. I mean, I’d at least like the option, you know? But whatever. I mean John Mark McMillan could shave and have a full beard again a day later… but whatever. It’s the card I was dealt. I’m fine with it.

I’m glad you’re content about it.

I wouldn’t say I’m content. I’m resigned to the fact.

You are also a Worship Leader at Beaches United Methodist in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. You just came out with a new worship record. What is it called?

Yeah, the latest recorded we did there is called “The Reason.” It came out mid August. It was a quick turn around!

Where are you playing these days?

We’ll I’ve been busy with John Mark. We had our first Raucous Tour that stretched about 3 months. We weren’t out the whole time, but we did 4 different legs of that tour. Pretty much played the whole country.  We are currently out on tour with David Crowder, Gungor, and Chris August. When I’m home I do all sorts of different musical things. Studio stuff sometimes. I play at a church in town called Elevation. I also play at John Mark’s church called Queen City Church every now and then. Jon and I are going to start the next All The Bright Lights record soon. We are excited about that.

You make music in and out of the church. What is it like being a musician in two different areas of music? I think some people, right or wrong, struggle to justify doing both. Often times because they are being asked to do so. Do you feel the pressure to defend yourself? Do you run into any criticism?

I’m always rethinking how I feel about this sort of thing… No, rather… how to handle it with other people. I know how I feel… I just don’t know how honest to be with people, when it comes down to it (even though, I’m pretty honest).

Sometimes it is very difficult. On a personal level, I have no qualms with playing anywhere, as long as it’s not for something that is causing real bad in the world. I’m a pretty tolerant person too. The only thing I’m probably intolerant about is… Intolerance. Ha!. Anyway… The irony here is that often times, I find the people that I most feel are loving and kind hearted are indeed outside of the Church. Oof.

The hard part is that some people don’t understand that good intentions and treating people right is really what matters most, on a practical level. So they worry about things like “playing in bars” or “drinking” or… I mean, pick your poison… But I just know that as long as you’re a good person, with a good attitude, you’re probably doing the right thing. Things will be okay.

Also, You know, I don’t really try to differentiate the “music” as one thing or another. If I can tap my feet to it and I’m having a good time playing it, I’ll play it. End of story!!

(trying real hard not to rant here) haha!

I’ve known Jared Bowser (the other half of SUNBEARS!) since he was born. He’s one of my favorite drummers ever. He’s good!

I’m lucky to have Jared in my life, even to this day, I’m not sure how he’s stuck with me for so long! I’ve definitely put him through some drama through the years, but I think it’s a testament to our friendship, you know. Jared blows my mind every time we play together.

What’s your favorite memory with Jared Bowser??

My favorite good memory?

Ohh… Good question… your favorite BAD memory!!

Let’s just drop it, Shall we, Jonny?  You guys create quite a spectacle in your live shows. You are switching between multiple instruments and singing, Jared is ruling on the drums, there are flowers everywhere, the video screens are playing all sorts of crazy things which you create, correct?.  How do you two come up with all the ideas for what you do as far as the stage show is concerned?  

Jared and I do a lot of talking. That’s where it all comes from. We are also HUGE music fans and go to a lot of shows. I don’t like to take credit for anything that we’ve ever done, because, you know, it’s probably all been done before. From Coldplay to Lady GaGa to The Flaming Lips, we sure as hell aren’t covering any new territory. But we do make it our own. It’s our interpretation of what has been done throughout music history, so yeah, it can feel fresh to some people… everyone is different!

But the stuff that plays on the video screen behind you guys is great! Do you create that all yourself? Is it hard? Does it take you a long time? I don’t think I have the necessary brain power to do that.

Yeah, I make all of that stuff. It’s not really hard, but it is time consuming. I usually spend a couple days per song. Or if I’m doing a little intro video, like my Yuki video from last year, that could take a week!! It also depends on what I’m animating. Oof.

click to watch the Sunbears! Yuki video

I like the little dances you do on stage while playing guitar… is it a routine or is it completely spontaneous?

I’d say it’s a combination of being completely spontaneous and loving Keith Richards.

Very cool!!

What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened on stage?

We’ve had hoola-hoopers on stage with us, which was pretty wild. The stages we play are not very big and so Jared and I were constantly dodging hoops for a few songs. It was cool though! The hoopers had neons lights in their hoops. Real cool! Jared has also broken his drum throne after doing a massive fill. We were in boston and he just full on ate it!! Ha ha!

click here to watch Jared eat it!

How about you??

A few years ago I was playing at the big christian conference in Canada. We had just finished playing and went off the stage. The guy I was playing with came up and whispered “Hey I’m gonna go talk to this guy” and I said “But we have to play one more song”, to which he replied “Oh you guys just play. It’ll be fine”, To which I said, “But… you are the singer…”. Then He left! So I gathered the guys and we sort of talked about what we were doing. The bass player and the only one who had a microphone said “I’m not singing”. Great! So I decided we would just jam out on some U2 ripoff thing and laugh and at least it will be funny to us. This was on live satelite tv, by the way. All over the world. Anyways, So we went back onstage but right as I started to rule with some dotted 8th notes this guy walks up on stage.  So he starts talking. And talking. And talking. About all sorts of ridiculous things. Everybody in the crowd is just staring at him probably thinking the same thing I was. I think he was taking up the offering. So after about 10 minutes of this the stage manager walks up to the edge of the stage and starts waving his arms around in the air and mouthing “PLAY! JUST PLAY!!!!” then he started doing that thing when you use your thumb to act like you are slicing your throat. He wanted this guy to be done. So I started to mouth back something like “hey you are the one that let him up here…” but then I’d be on camera looking like I was talking to myself so I just decided to play. What the heck, right? So we start playing this really loud U2 wanna-be thing. It wasn’t very good. I, and the stage manager, thought that would get this guy to stop. It didn’t. He just started singing! He started trying to sing one liners and get the crowd to sing it back. Like Bono or something. But they didn’t. They were still staring at him. All on live tv. It was really not fun. But funny!

How in the world did you meet (Flaming Lips singer) Wayne Coyne? Are y’all friends? Do you text him and stuff?

We started going a little back and forth on twitter. I randomly found him on there, I’m pretty sure on day one of his twitter career. He had something like 60 followers. Our friendship beyond that is pretty slim, we bump into each other a couple times a year, we have a chat here and there. He’s a pretty cool guy, from what I can tell, you know, very easy to talk to. Aside from meeting him though, I’ve actually made some very very cool friends that are a part of his OKC posse. We talk often! All good good people…!!!

Are you currently working on any projects? What do you have going on now?

Right now, Jared and I are just trying to get our new record out. It’s called “You Will Live Forever.” A lot of work getting releases out on your own, you know…!!! Going to be shooting a video for one of the tracks soon. It’s called “Together Forever.” And we also just finished up a video for the first single, “Give Love A Try.” Real feel good thing…

I can’t wait to see it! I really loved your video for Little Baby Pines. So good. What a beautiful song, Little Baby Pines.

Ha ha! Well, I got to hear some of your new record with John Mark McMillan while I was in New York last spring. You recorded with Jeremy Griffith (one of my favorite humans), just as Jared and I did. Did you have a blast?? Tell me about it!

Yes. I love Jeremy Griffith. He also mixed the ATBL record. He is great. We started out with a week of pre-production. Jeremy came down for it. Then we moved to Atlanta for a couple weeks and recorded at Glow In The Dark Studios. It was great working with Jeremy because he really made us think about the music differently. He’d come in to the live room, plug a guitar in and start jamming out with us. He would take each section of the song, one at a time, and really hash it out with us. We had never done anything like that before. He brought some great energy. And he’s a genius and gets amazing sounds. And he’s so funny.

What do you do for fun when you aren’t playing or working on music?

I hang out with my wife, Maria, all the time. She is the coolest person I’ve ever known aside from my family and Jared. I also play some world of warcraft a couple nights a week. I have my own guild that I run with a friend. Nerd Speak. However, if anyone reading this wants to come play with me and Brandon Aaronson from Jesus Culture, we play on the Shadowmoon server, Horde, guild name: <Intense>…!!! Ha!

I’ve never played World of Warcraft. I love Super Mario Brothers. Have you ever played Super Mario Brothers?

Aside from “Karate”, “Pac-Man”, and “Pole Position”, I think that was the first console game I ever played…

Oh. “Console game”. You know your stuff. You sounded so pro right there. What advice can you give to aspiring musicians and producers that are looking for ways to do music full time.

It’s sort of a tough question to answer. Honestly, music sort of fell into my lap without me asking for it. I had a job as an engineer here in Jacksonville, FL and I thought I was going to make a career out of it. And then the economy crashed, and the company that I worked for let 300 people go. All I had at that point was music… and also around then, people started paying attention to what I was doing. It just kind of worked out for me in a weird way… I don’t think it would happen the same way if I had it to do over again, it was just too perfect. But my advice? Just do what feels natural. I feel like as soon as anyone really starts TRYING to do anything, it becomes silly. Be yourself. People will like you.

That’s the key. Be yourself. It also helps to be a musical genius. What’s that like?

Shut up, James.

Let’s not fight.

I also think a lot of musicians are playing with the wrong people, or playing the wrong music for that matter, because it’s the only opportunity they think is available. There isn’t even anything wrong with that, necessarily. Music can be a JOB just like anything else. Lot’s of people hate their jobs, haha. But if you find yourself really frustrated with where you are at, musically unfulfilled, in a rut, hating the people you play with AND you are also not seeing any forward motion and that’s frustrating you to death… well maybe you need to look at where you are at. I’m not talking about paying your dues. I’m not talking about putting in the time and working your butt off. There’s a difference and I think people excuse one for the other. I have been all of those things at different times of my life, and it was always more about  me not being where I needed to be. Before I moved to Charlotte I was definitely all of those things.  I can’t even begin to tell you how much everything changed once I moved here and was where I was supposed to be. Everything was different.  In my case, where I was supposed to be was a different state. Sometimes it’s just a different attitude you need to have. Sometimes it’s a different church. Sometimes it’s a different group of musicians. Change can be scary, but it’s worth it in the end.

Any new gear you are excited about?

There is this cool new pedal called a POG, heard of it??

Yeah man. Octaves rule!!!!

Octaves are the new Power Chord!

Lets see… new gear. I did just got a new overdrive pedal AND a new guitar recently. The OD pedal is an old DOD Juice Box. It’s pretty rad, transparent. I like it. Took the place of my old modded Ibanez TS. I also got a 1990 Jap Jazzmaster, which I absolutely love. That’s about it for new stuff though!

Where do you keep your old PRS locked up?

Ah, Rosemary. Well it went into retirement a few years ago. Then I sold it. I thought somebody should be playing it. I used the money and bought Jacki some things for the house. And a 1966 Fender Mustang. It was a little sad, actually. I played that guitar all over the world. The guy that bought it sent me an email a couple of months later with “progress pics”. He had it repainted purple… PURPLE. Purple? I was a little heartbroken and felt guilty. Then I realized guitars are inanimate objects and have no feelings and can’t love or talk or anything. I sold it.

How’s Jacksonville?

Jacksonville is home, Jacksonville is great!!! I used to want to move, you know, head up to New York City or something, but then I got over it. “Home” has become something of great value to me lately, so I’d rather not uproot it and relocate!!! Besides, Jacksonville has everything I need.

You’re from Jacksonville! That’s how we know each other… but why did YOU leave??

I already told you that. You never listen to me.

Bye, Jonathan.

Bye, James. I love you?


 

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3 comments

  1. unrelated gear question for you guys if you’ve got a minute. i read in a previous post that you sometimes use a gretsch 5 watt amp as your second amp. where do you set its volume? do you keep it clean at say a 3 of 10 so your dirt pedals have room provide the usual drive? just as they’re doing for your main amp. or do you set it at the sweet spot of maybe 5/6 of 10…but then have issues of your dirt pedals pushing into too much gain territory?

    i’m a low budget player with a gretsch into a circuit modded vox ac4 (i borrow larger amps if needed…everyone around here loves boutique/pro stuff and can justify it). i play for our elem. kids and sometimes other areas of our church…all the typical praise/worship delay sounding stuff really. just mimicking the stuff other musicians write. i play small room to occasionally 500 person space. the vox is no boutique amp of course, but i try to figure out how to run the low watt amp for sweet tone in the smaller venue rather than overkill with a 15-30watt that can’t ever be turned up. i also love the idea of it being my 2nd/stereo amp next to a larger watt amp in the future…since it’s cheap and i own it. the problem is that it breaks up early since it’s low wattage(also an advantage), and ends up getting real dirty after the usual 1-3 gain stages of your typical pedalboard setup kick in. i would love to hear how you run your low watt amp and make it work for you.

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