The protest song is not a new concept in Rock 'n Roll. In fact, many of Eric Tischler's favorite bands have gone through periods where they shook their musical fists at the system. But Tischler and his band, The Jet Age, have gone one step further with their newest album, What Did You Do During The War, Daddy? Rather than shouting at authority for its many, many mistakes, Tischler used his song's lyrics as a story about a father and husband who has lost his faith in his leaders. Through his character, Tischler asks a simple question: What do you do when your government fails you? The protagonist's answer is to start a revolution — by blowing himself up.
It's a brilliant concept, told with emotion and beauty though The Jet Age's classic rock-inspired riffs. Even if you don't jump head first into the plot, the music is both familiar and fresh, filled with rapid-fire drum fills and frantic energy.
I spoke with Tischler on the phone about his band, his album, and the process you follow to create a protest album in the modern age.
Tell me about The Jet Age – How’d you guys get started, how long have you guys been together?
I was in a band called The Hurricane Lamps, and we put out a bunch of records and in 2004 we did our last tour, and we were going to break up. And I said to the guys, “How do you feel if I keep the name?” And they didn’t want me to, so I said okay. So I got together with a bass player, and he knew a drummer, so I said bring him in, and it was this amazing guy, Pete Nuwayser, who’s the drummer now.
We played our first show, and the bass player has to move to Denver. *laughs* So now we needed a bass player. And then the bassist from The Hurricane Lamps decides he’s ready to play in a rock band again. That’s Greg Bennett. So a lot of people think we just changed the name from The Hurricane Lamps to The Jet Age, but we actually did break up. People think we’re trying to pull a fast one, but we’re not.
How different are you stylistically from The Hurricane Lamps?
Well, I still write the songs for the most part, so there’s definitely a through line. I think the big difference has been, Pete is so intuitive and improvisational, so playing with Pete is like, the sky’s the limit. With The Hurricane Lamps, the songs were always kind of like in a straight jacket, and The Jet Age is like using the song as a launching pad. So playing is a very different experience for us. I think people who’ve seen it and know the Lamps can see the difference, but there’s definitely a through line.
The new record is called What Did You Do During The War, Daddy? and it’s a very political album. Did you plan that from the start?
No, when I started writing the album, I had these three disparate songs. And it was early, but I thought, “How are these songs going to go together?” And I realized suddenly that one song was really happy, one song was kind of meditative, and one song was really kind of dark and violent, and that’s a dramatic arc. They really told a story. Because all three songs are about a family man, or sung by a family man. So I was like, “Oh my God, this is an arc about a family man.” And then The Who released Endless Wire, and Townshend was saying how it was so easy to write lyrics when he had a story. That’s what dictates what you do. And I was looking for a crutch, and every song I’d write could help flesh out this story. And once I had that in mind it turned out to be really easy. As I was writing the material it would slot into the storyline, so it was… I don’t know if that makes it organic or inorganic. *laughs* The songs themselves came organically, but I guess the idea itself was imposed.
You came up with the story after you came up with the three songs?
Yeah, I mean, the first song I wrote was, “If I Had You Then, I’d Still Want You Now” which is a real upbeat song, and the next song was “Shake,” which is a song about a nightmare where the guy worries he’s not up to the task of taking care of his family. And then the last song is “False Idols,” which is soup to nuts, the guy says, “I went and got myself blown up, I blew up the government, I did it to make your lives better. And this is me telling you from beyond the grave.” So then it’s like, why does the guy think he can’t take care of his family? Because the world’s out of control, and he can’t control the world. So, you know, then that goes into False Idols, where that’s how the guy is trying to take control of the world, so to speak. “If we can’t take control of the government through usual means, this is how I choose to change the course of the government, since democracy isn’t working.” And the first one, that just sets the tone, here’s a happy family, that’s a happy song, that a guy’s singing to his wife, and he alludes to his kids. So there’s the story. You know, it’s still a rock record from start to finish, it’s not just, you know, the ten best pop-rock songs I can come up with, you know?
But you can just listen to the album without listening to the story. If you just listen to the songs as just rock songs, they hold up really well.
Thank you. Yeah, I really had to succeed on two counts: One, the story had to be legit, I couldn’t be like, “Oh, there’s a story, trust me!” But simultaneously, you know, like on Tommy, like “The Doctor,” you know? Things like that, little snippets kind of take you out of the record, but are necessary to tell the story as a rock opera. So I want every song to sound like it can go on a mix tape. That’s my rule of thumb.
When you look at the album, do you view it as a rock opera like Tommy or as like a concept album? In a lot of the PR, it’s painted as a musical.
And that’s deliberate. Like I said, the problem for me with Tommy is that by making it an opera, every beat has to be accounted for in a song. In an opera, everything is sung, and in a musical, there’s dialog. So you don’t have to worry about addressing a clunky thing in a song. My thought was, “Okay, I don’t want to talk about how he gets from Point A to Point B, or have a song about driving to the grocery store.” The dialog would take care of that. In fact at one point I had actually written a few lines of dialog to scatter in to sort of tighten up the narrative, but again it goes back to, “You know what, I don’t want the songs to become subservient to the story. I want the songs to tell the story.” And again, I don’t want someone to play it on shuffle and have a 30 second snippet of dialog. First it’s got to work as a rock album, and a close second is I want to tell the story. And the artwork is very deliberate in that respect. You know, it says, “Original Cast Recording” on the cover. It’s a conceit, but it conveys the idea. On the back it says Act One, Act Two, Act Three to really give people the cues to pick that up.
Some people have totally gotten it, some people haven’t. One guy wrote to me and said, “Hey, I like the record.” And I said, “Did you get the story?” And four or five minutes later he goes nuts!
It just blew his mind.
Yeah! He hadn’t put it together!
’s talk a little bit about the story. The album is based around this protagonist who’s a father and husband. How much of that character is you, and how much of this is, well, obviously not you’re a suicide bomber. How much of this is just there to make the story work?
I think it’s really almost all me until the point where he decides he needs to kill people to make things better. The question to me is legitimate, in that, What do we do, you know? When Diebold can change the course of elections, what do you do? When protesting doesn’t have any impact, what do you do? It’s very worrisome. So, in trying to discuss the question I posited a scenario, and that’s a leaping off point where you might say, “At what point do we strike up the militias and march on D.C.
How is the audience supposed to view the father at the end? Is he a hero or a fool, or just acting out of desperation?
Those are all good questions. I don’t want to say he’s a fool, but he might be a fool. The first song, “Ladies, Don’t Cry Tonight,” that’s kind of intended to sit in the background and say there’s a war going on. When we sing it at the end, it’s for our hero’s wife, and he’s doing this all for his family. But the downside of course is that his family no longer has their father. So, does that defeat the purpose? He did this for his family, but which is worse? Having this out of control government or being fatherless and husbandless? And we don’t even know if he changed anything. So hopefully you see where he’s coming from, and rather than say, “Well that was stupid,” it could be what else do you do? The question I’m hoping to ask is, if that wasn’t the right move, what is the right move?
What’s the reaction been to the story? It turns some heads when they find out that you’ve written an album about an American suicide bomber.
I think most people get it. There’s the people who don’t get it, and the people who do get it. And the people who do get it recognize that it’s trying to start a debate. Or maybe not a debate. Trying to start a conversation.
One writer, who was a very sweet guy and had a clear right-wing bent, was like, “It’s kind of like The Who and Green Day and punk rock.” And okay, not much to draw on there, but it’s okay. But he says, “It’s a good record, but the concept is a little shakey.” It was shaky because he didn’t like the idea. You’re not supposed to like the idea, you know? So that was the one guy. Everyone else seems to kinda get it.
So you haven’t had any guys wearing Confederate flags come up at a show and accuse you of being in the Taliban?
No. I’m pretty sure those guys don’t read Pitchfork, though. *laughs*
That’s a good point.
They’re not tuned into KEXP or anything.
“O, Calendar” has got to be one of the craziest, ecstatic songs on the album. Where the hell did you get that song from? I love the riff, I love how intense and frantic it is. Did it come out as a standalone song, or in the context of the story?
Well, none of the music was written to fit the story. The tunes just kind of come to me. I don’t want to make it sound mystical, but it’s sort of hard to explain how it works. With that song, something I had to do to sell the story was show these people as happy people. This isn’t a morose, outsider kind of guy. This is a guy who has a life to lead and a family he loves and that’s what motivates him. So that first act needs to convey that joy, and give you that sense of what he’s fighting for, and at the end when he’s dead, what everyone’s lost. This joyous family has been ripped apart. So “O, Calendar,” I thought that it’s just this exuberant, buoyant song, I just said, Let’s go for it. And at one point, and I guess I buried it back behind the vocal, I just scream, “The Jet Stream!” I just yelled in the background, but I really buried it. It’s just goofy, we just had fun with it. And it’s the end of that act, this happy act. “I’m in love with this girl and everything’s so great!”And bang, you’re suddenly in Act Two and shit’s going wrong.
What’s your live show like? Do you play the album like it’s a musical or mix in older material?
No, we’re playing the whole record start to finish. I think we’ll only have enough time to do the record.