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THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST: Talking Dope, Arson And Iron Maiden With JJL’s Jay Joseph Laughlin

JJL BAND PHOTO copy
L-R: Derek Ziglenski, Jay Laughlin, Pete Girgenti/Photo by CHUCKLES

BY JONATHAN VALANIA Jay Laughlin has been a fixture of the Greater Philadelphia music scene since the late ’80s, beginning with the posthumously beloved straight edge hardcore band Turning Point, which morphed into beloved pedal-hopping dream-pop merchants Lenola, which eventually morphed into the electro-psych-pop of Like A Fox. Laughlin’s new band, JJL, marks a return to the devil-horned heaviosity of his gloriously misspent south Jersey youth. JJL will celebrate the release of The Tiger, their debut EP, with a record release show at Johnny Brenda’s tomorrow night. Recently, we sat down with Mr. Laughlin for a look back at his 30-year career in local rock. DISCUSSED: Slayer, Iron Maiden, punk friggin’ rock, straight edge, Jade Tree, weed, wine coolers, My Bloody Valentine, synths and samplers, Super Furry Animals, arson and the kindness of strangers.

PHAWKER: The new album is very Iron Maiden. Big break from what came before, from the electronic-flecked-psych-pop of Like a Fox and the full-blown dream pop of Lenola. How did that happen? Are you re-living your gloriously misspent metal youth?

JAY LAUGHLIN: No, not particularly. Me and my drummer would show up to band practice early, and I would fuck around, playing all of these heavy riffs. We always joked about making another band, and doing that. When Like a Fox broke up, I just started writing heavy stuff and started playing as a three-piece. Stripped away all of the keyboards, all that stuff. It just felt good to get back to really playing, and it’s challenging for me. I iron_maiden_number_of_the_beast_ironmaidenwallpaper.comstarted to get bored with the simpler songs. I just got visceral and started challenging myself to play up to my potential. It feels good.

PHAWKER: Where you a metalhead when you were younger?

JAY LAUGHLIN:Yeah. Big into Slayer and Iron Maiden. I saw Maiden numerous times at the Spectrum when I was a kid.

PHAWKER: Did they have Eddie onstage?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah. That was when they just had the big thing [Eddie costume] with the floppy arms. It was just some roadie. But as a kid, it was the coolest thing I ever saw.

PHAWKER: You said Slayer, too?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah. I learned how to play guitar by listening to Ride The Lightning by Metallica, and Reign In Blood by Slayer. Rewinding the cassettes and stuff. I would learn riff after riff. That’s how I learned how to play.

PHAWKER: How old were you when you started?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Probably sixth or seventh grade. I started playing drums in fifth grade. That was my first instrument.

PHAWKER: Why’d you pick up drums?

JAY LAUGHLIN: My older brother, Chris, was a big KISS fan. He wanted a drum kit for Christmas, and he got it. He played it for like, a month or two. Then it sat, and I set it up and started playing. He lost interest, and it sat there for a year. Then, in fifth grade, I picked it up and put it back together.

PHAWKER: Self taught?

JAY LAUGHLIN: I took drum lessons for a little bit. But for guitar, I was self-taught.

PHAWKER: How’d you get from that to the Turning Point? Were there any other bands on the way?

JAY LAUGHLIN: I played in a band that was a thrash metal band. Kids that were in high school, I was in middle school, but they were friends of my brother. They were looking for a drummer, and he was like, “Oh, my little brother plays drums.” I was in sixth grade or something. I played with these guys.

PHAWKER: You were in sixth grade and playing in a thrash metal band? How old were the other guys?turningpoint

JAY LAUGHLIN: They were in high school.

PHAWKER: You’re like Tommy Stinson.

JAY LAUGHLIN: They would pick me up, take me to their garage and give me like, two beers. They would chain-smoke cigarettes and listen to Slayer. They didn’t talk to me. They would pick me up in their car, and just have Slayer playing really fucking loud. I would sit in the backseat, and they would hand me cigarettes and shit. [laughs]

PHAWKER: What was that band called?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Strychnine. I started playing guitar, because we would take breaks in that band, and I would watch the guitar player playing. I was like, “That doesn’t’ seem like it’s really that hard.” They would take breaks and go get high. I would take the guy’s guitar and just start playing it. One of my brothers brought home an acoustic guitar that only had five strings on it. I started playing that.

PHAWKER: How long until you had a sixth string?

JAY LAUGHLIN: I think once my mom realized that I was serious about it, she took me out and I got a Fender Strat. Then I got into punk rock.

PHAWKER: How did that happen?

JAY LAUGHLIN: I think I was in seventh grade, listening to all metal stuff. This kid moved in from California into my high school. He was a skateboarder, I was a skateboarder. He brought with him Dead Kennedys, and D.O.A. All that kind of stuff, and turned me on to that, and that was it. Punk rock was the end-all-be-all. I had a little punk rock band with my buddy, my best friend who lived on the street, called Pointless. We never did anything. We played Club Pizazz like once. Way up in the Northeast. Chuck Meehan booked the shows.

PHAWKER: It was an all-ages thing and they would do shows there?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah. And then I had that little band, and we met this other band called Failsafe, and became good friends with their drummer. He wanted to start a straight edge band. We combined two bands, that was Turning Point.

PHAWKER: How did you decide to be straight edge? Usually, kids that age are wanting to get into drugs and alcohol to be more grown up.Lenola

JAY LAUGHLIN: I tried weed and shit when I was really young, in sixth grade and stuff. It just seemed like a lot of the dudes in my neighborhood [that drank and took drugs] were gonna be stuck there forever. I could tell that.

PHAWKER: Why did you stop being straight edge?

JAY LAUGHLIN: We were hanging at this Turning Point singer’s house, Skip. Skip’s mom had these wine coolers in the refrigerator. They’d been sitting there probably for like, two years. I guess we just got bored of eating pizza and hanging out with dudes all the time. We drank a wine cooler, and we were like, “That’s pretty cool.” One wine cooler, caught a buzz, and I was like, “Wow.” That was that.

PHAWKER: Turning Point had a very devoted following, correct? Or did that following come after the fact? You were telling me that the people were paying top dollar for some of the vinyl you put out.

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah, I guess now looking back, we’re looked at as a very influential hardcore band. At the time, we did all right. We had a 7-inch, that got put out on Darren Walters’ Jade Tree Records. We were the first record he ever put out. It was called “High Impact.”

PHAWKER: So why did Turning Point end?

JAY LAUGHLIN: I think it ended because we felt like people weren’t that into it. It had its time. Our shows were starting to be not as well attended. That whole scene was starting to die. So we split up.

PHAWKER: When is this? Post-Nirvana?

JAY LAUGHLIN: No, it was before that. We actually did a Turning Point reunion show on the day that Kurt Cobain killed himself. I’ll never forget that. We got offered a chunk of money. I didn’t want to do it because I was in Lenola at the time, and I was pretty much against it. But everybody else wanted to do it, so I did it. But that day, I remember waking up to the news of Kurt Cobain getting shot. It was weird.

PHAWKER: Getting back to Turning Point for a second, though— you were telling me that those records are going for a lot of money on eBay, tell me about that?

JAY LAUGHLIN: I had test pressings that I sold for a lot of money to the collectors, they were color vinyl. Back then, they’d press the record, they’d make a thousand of them, and then they’d make a hundred of gold vinyl, and 50 of red. You had those things, and kids fucking go nuts. Sell them for like 400 bucks.Lenola Last 10 Feet

PHAWKER: So how did Lenola start up?

JAY LAUGHLIN: I got my first 4-track, like every good musician does. I got a credit card for an $1100 limit. I went right to the music store, got a 4-track and started making these songs by myself. I called it Lenola after the town that I grew up in, the street that I grew up on.

PHAWKER: Lenola no longer exists, right? Did they change the name?

JAY LAUGHLIN: It’s Moorestown. It used to be its own town and have its own post office, I guess. Moorestown is a very rich town. Lenola, the side we grew up on, wasn’t. We were middle class, but not rich like the other side of town. All the kids that lived in Lenola took it as, “No, we’re not from Moorestown. We’re from Lenola.” While I was starting to write all that stuff on the 4-track, I was like, “That’s a good band name.” Nobody else had it. It’s actually a town in Italy. I didn’t know. I started making these demos by myself, and gave them to my friends who’d pass them around. They were like, “We should make this a band.”

PHAWKER: You’re no longer straight edge at this point?

JAY LAUGHLIN: No.

PHAWKER: You smoke pot?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yes. [laughs] Yes.

PHAWKER: And that influenced the music?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yes. Absolutely.

PHAWKER: Then you started listening to music like that, as well?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah. Friends of mine liked My Bloody Valentine. Huge thing. My older brother and my younger brother would play it for me, and it would just blow over my head. I didn’t get it. I was so into heavy stuff, it didn’t make any sense to me. To be honest, you get fucking high and-

PHAWKER: The light bulb went off?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah, it was like, *bing* Holy shit!

PHAWKER: Are you talking about Loveless? The first time you heard it high?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah, I heard my brothers playing it. Medicine, that band Medicine. Stuff like that. I was just like, “I don’t get it. I don’t see the attraction to it at all.”

PHAWKER: Lenola did a few national tours, tell me some funny tour disaster stories. Every band must have one.like a fox

JAY LAUGHLIN: I think we have the ultimate one. We had a tour booked right before 9/11. The tour was scheduled to start, like, the week after 9/11. We were supposed to play CMJ, and that got cancelled. So, we did the tour. We should not have done the tour. I think that was the downfall of the band. We went out, and not a fucking person in the world gave a fuck about a little indie band from New Jersey and Philadelphia. The shows were terrible. We made it all the way to the West Coast, and cut it off. It was that bad.

PHAWKER: You didn’t bother to do the rest of the shows?

JAY LAUGHLIN: We drove straight back. It was really bad.

PHAWKER: That must have been a bummer. Three days in that van. Just defeated.

JAY LAUGHLIN: It was awful. Beyond defeated. When we came home, two of the guys got engaged to their girlfriends.

PHAWKER: They said, “Fuck it, I’m going down my own road.”

JAY LAUGHLIN: I think definitely for some of the guys, it was definitely a wake up call. “Fuck. This isn’t working. I’m gonna start a family.”

PHAWKER: So Lenola morphs into Like A Fox, which was kind of like an extension of what you were doing in Lenola but with more electronics, and…

JAY LAUGHLIN: Synths and samplers.

PHAWKER: What prompted the synths and the samplers?

JAY LAUGHLIN: I guess just stuff that I was listening to at the time, like Super Furry Animals. I got really into those guys, and they always put on such an amazing live show, and they had all this stuff synced up with video. I got really into that aspect of music, trying to do this really big stage thing, you know what I mean? Not like Pink Floyd, but a whole production. When you came to see it, it was like, “Wow, how do they do that?” With three keyboards, and we had so much gear and five people. It was good. I thought we pulled it off great, but I just got tired of it after a while.

PHAWKER: Because it was just too many balls to juggle?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah, just getting five fucking people to practice, you know what I mean?

PHAWKER: As you get older its harder to get everyone together.laf

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah. Everyone has real jobs and shit. “Oh, Monday night’s the only night we can practice.” “I can’t practice on Monday night, because I just started working.” You know? That kind of thing. As you get older, it becomes a lot harder. What I’m doing now, a three piece thing, is perfect.

PHAWKER: It’s called JJL. It’s your initials?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yes. I got tired of naming bands.

PHAWKER: [laughs] Coming up on a year ago, your practice space burned to the ground, along with several thousand dollars worth of gear and recording equipment, but it was not an accident. Explain that.

JAY LAUGHLIN: The guy who owned the building stopped paying the mortgage. He owned three buildings, and we were in the middle building.

PHAWKER: This was in South Philly?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah. It turns out, he bought the building, let us stay there. Let us pay the same amount of rent that we were paying the other owner. He was gonna turn them into condos, and I don’t know what the fuck happened to the guy, but he lost a big court case. I’m not positive, but his life kind of went to shit. He stopped working on the buildings, and he was living in the garage next to us. He stopped paying his mortgage on these places, so the place went up for a fire sale, a sheriff’s sale, whatever you want to call it. These two guys bought the buildings, and we had no idea. We were still paying the other guy rent, because he was living next to us. We thought he still owned the place. I guess he was trying to get in, and the new owners wouldn’t let him in. He was trying to measure the place. The other guys bought it, and they’re loaded. They just said, “Fuck it. We’ll just wait it out.” When you gotta evict somebody, it takes months and months. I guess he was getting notices that they were coming to get him, because he knew exactly what day the cops were coming to physically remove him from the building, which was a Saturday or Sunday. He gassed the place up, lit it up and took off. They still haven’t found him.

PHAWKER: Really? Still haven’t found him? He poured gasoline all over everything?

JAY LAUGHLIN: He poured some kind of accelerant, because when the cop got down there, right away they were like, “This wasn’t an accident.”

PHAWKER: It was a really big fire that took a lot of time to put out, right?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah. There was fucking so many fire trucks there.

PHAWKER: How’d you find out about this, again? Someone called you or something?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah, my drummer called me at 10 in the morning, because somebody had called him. I was asleep. My wife was like, “Pete’s calling.” “The fuck’s he calling me at 10 in the morning for?” We’re friends, but we don’t talk in the morning. So I missed a call, and there was a text from Collin Keefe from eight in the morning. I looked at that, and it was like, “Do you still have a practice space on Darren Street? I think it’s on fire.” “Holy Shit.” So I call my drummer, and he was already there. He was like, “You gotta come down here right now.” I turned the corner, and I was like, “Holy fuck, they’re shooting a fuckin’ hose right in the window of our fucking studio.” No roof, it’s gone. Everything was gone.The Tiger

PHAWKER: What time did the fire start? In the middle of the night?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah, like four in the morning.

PHAWKER: Jesus. So six hours later they were still fighting it?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah.

PHAWKER: You guys lost everything. All of your instruments, all of your recording gear, right?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Everything.

PHAWKER: You want to give me a ballpark of what you lost money wise?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Me, personally?

PHAWKER: The whole band. Like what, $10,000 dollars?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Thirty?

PHAWKER: Wow, $30,000.

JAY LAUGHLIN: My drummer had his whole life in there. Downstairs, he used to use the whole downstairs as a woodwork shop. He had whole drumsets, studio gears, monitors, mixing board, everything. All of my guitars, all of my amps. My entire guitar pedal collection. All of it, just gone.

PHAWKER: And you guys didn’t have insurance?

JAY LAUGHLIN: We didn’t, no. It was a South Philly handshake deal. As far as I understand, when it comes to arson, it doesn’t fucking matter if you have insurance, you have to go after that guy.

PHAWKER: Oh. And how has he managed to avoid detection? He has to be living under a bridge or something. He can’t be spending money that’s in any way that’s connected to his name. They would’ve found him by now.

JAY LAUGHLIN: I have no idea.

PHAWKER: Friends and family and the local music scene rose to the occasion. You had a benefit concert.

JAY LAUGHLIN: I didn’t know what to do, and I instantly had friends who were like, “Where can I donate money?” I don’t know. That’s when they suggested I do a Kickstarter. I used Indiegogo. I sat the band down and talked about it. It was really our only option. We were never gonna earn enough money to buy stuff back. So we did it. It went live and in two hours or something it was like, $4,000 raised. I was overwhelmed. I was blown away. Within the first 24 hours it was, like, $9,000. People came out of the woodwork. I was like, “Wow. I guess I’m gonna keep doing this.” It was great. My local bar, Fountain Porter in South Philly, threw a benefit for us. All of the restaurants in the neighborhood gave us free dinner. Everybody was donating all of this stuff, I couldn’t believe it. We were able to raise a good chunk of money to get our gear back to play live. We finished the recording for The Tiger EP. It was unbelievable.

PHAWKER: You work lights at Johnny Brenda’s now, but you used to work the door. I’m wondering what’s the funniest or most fucked up thing you encountered at that job? You deal with a lot of drunks, right?

JAY LAUGHLIN: Yeah. I mean, at Johnny Brenda’s, there’s like four doors you can get into on the first floor. Sometimes you have to kick somebody out, and like a fucking cartoon, they would come back in through another door. Chasing them around like, “Jesus Christ!” I had a dude one time, we kicked him out. He went to his car, changed his shirt, and thought I wouldn’t recognize him in a different shirt. He came back, and I was standing there like, “Yo. I just threw you out of here.” He was like, “No you didn’t.” “You just changed your shirt.” He finally was like, “Alright, you caught me.” You fooled me. People coming down from New York to a sold out show without tickets, crying, begging to get in. We’d get people in somehow. Then the band starts, and they’re outside fucking smoking. I’m like, “You know, they’re on.” They’re like, “Yeah, I know.”

JJL + GONDOLA + THE IMPROBABLES PLAY JOHNNY BRENDAS NOV. 13TH

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