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From Letters to Cleo, American Hi-Fi and Matchbox Twenty to Miley Cyrus and the Chainsmokers, Stacy Jones is Music’s Ultimate Utility Man
There’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen Stacy Jones make music, whether you know it or not. Over the years, he’s been a drummer, lead singer, guitarist, producer and Music Director — disparate roles for an ultimate music utility man, so to speak.
From his early days in Letters to Cleo to his alt/rock era in American Hi-Fi and beyond — as Musical Director for marquee pop acts such as Miley Cyrus and the Chainsmokers — the man has put in countless hours of work all across the globe.
Rock Cellar caught up with the relentlessly busy Jones for an interview days before his current gig, drumming with Rob Thomas and Matchbox Twenty for their A Brief History of Everything tour alongside Counting Crows, for a candid chat about his tireless career thus far.
Rock Cellar: You’re the drummer for Matchbox Twenty these days, and are out on the road with them for their tour with Counting Crows. How’d that happen, and are you looking forward to this new tour?
Stacy Jones: I have done it in the past. The deal with Matchbox is, it’s still the same four original guys – Rob, Paul – who is the drummer, Kyle, and Brian, so they always had an unofficial fifth member when they play live. And that guy does auxiliary stuff, guitar, keyboard, backgrounds, etc. At a certain point a few years back, he stopped touring with them so Paul, the drummer, said, “OK, so the next tour we do, I want to do the auxiliary role and let’s hire a drummer.” And that’s where I come in. I’ve been doing it with them since maybe 2012, somewhere around there? On and off four four, five years now.
It’s great. We know each other from back in the day, in fact we met when they were still called Tabitha’s Secret down in Orlando, and they opened for Letters to Cleo when we were down there back in the day. So we’re getting ready to do this summer run with Counting Crows, it’s gonna be awesome.
Your career started with Letters to Cleo, a band whose main introduction to a lot of folks was during the end credits of the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, with the band playing Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.”
Stacy Jones: Exactly, that’s where most people know the band from.
Right. And now Letters to Cleo are back, you reformed a year or so ago, played some shows, made a new EP. Considering everything else you’ve done in between for the past 20 years or so, how’d that feel?
Stacy Jones: Oh, it was great. All the Cleo people still do music, do other things. Kay, the singer, and Michael, the guitar player, live in LA, so we work on stuff all the time on other projects. We just kind of ran into each other at a show one night and started talking — I have a studio there in LA — so I said, “You know, I have two weeks where I’m not doing anything and the studio is available. Want to go in and see what happens?” And they both said ‘yeah!,’ so truth be told we were in the studio on the first day working on a song, just kind of writing it.
I’m not a big social media guy, I’m not really on there much to promote, but I snapped a photo of the three of us, me, Kay and Michael, and posted it on my Instagram. I said something like “My old band Letters to Cleo/my current band Letters to Cleo,” something like that, and like an hour later the guy who manages the band called Kay and was like, “What? What’s going on? The Boston Globe just reported that you’re working on a new record.”
And sure enough, LA Weekly, the Globe, a bunch of outlets picked up this Instagram post and wrote about it, so we were like, “Oh shit, guess we have to do this now.” We ended up doing that five-song EP and played five shows. It was amazing, really fun, and the shows were totally sold out or very damn near sold out. It was great. Because of that we’ve been asked to do a bunch of stuff this year, and because of our other commitments we haven’t been able to do much yet.
It’s one of those things where we’re really lucky that we can get back together and do stuff on our own terms.
How do you keep your schedule straight? Drumming, American Hi-Fi, Letters to Cleo, Musical Director for acts like Miley Cyrus, the Chainsmokers — that must be a lot of work, right?
Stacy Jones: It’s a lot of work. I didn’t even know what a Musical Director was when I first got the job, so I sort of fell into it. I guess I’d been doing it all along and didn’t know it. Really, what an MD does for a pop artist like Miley or Chainsmokers is you’re in charge of producing the live show. The live music element of their show. So if you’re a pop star that doesn’t have a band, you hire me and I put a band together for you. I’ll sit with an artist and conceptualize, “What’s it look like? How many are in the band? Three keyboard players,” all that stuff.
What do you want the live show to sound like? That’s one of the things in recent years with artists like the Chainsmokers, or somebody like Troye Sivan, they’re very much of an electronic thing, so a lot of their music is made on a laptop and not with traditional instruments, so it’s a challenge to figure out how we’re going to do that in an arena. It’s a fun challenge, and also thanks to all of these electronic acts I work with since they don’t want to just go on stage and press the space bar on a laptop. They want to play, they want to perform. They want these songs to come to life with musicians.
It’s a fun challenge, it definitely makes the show more unique. If you have a record made with drums and guitars, that’s pretty easy to recreate, but if you have stuff that’s manipulated by synthesizers or computers, that makes it a little more difficult to make it work. But it really does create a unique sound and I think it’s really cool.
What’s it like working one-on-one with Miley, since she obviously has an interesting public persona but I assume she’s totally different otherwise.
Stacy Jones: Well she’s great to work with, because she is super super professional, super hard-working. She always has a vision. She always knows what she wants. Because we’ve been working together going on 11, 12 years now, she trusts me. She’ll tell me, “Hey Jones, this is how I see this, I want to go this way with it,” so I’ll take the band to a rehearsal space and we’ll work up a few different versions of a song made for a few different versions of the set, and I’ll send it all to her. I generally know what she likes and doesn’t like, and so we’re able to get to it quickly. Just her being so great and dedicated makes my job a lot easier.
I know some other MDs that work with artists who aren’t as involved, don’t come to soundcheck or rehearsal. That makes their job harder, you know? The band will rehearse for a month and the artist doesn’t come in until the day before the first show and say, “I don’t like any of this.”
None of my artists have ever done that. I’ve actually been offered some gigs with other people that I’ve turned down because I’ve heard things about their work ethic.
Pretty cool to be able to turn down a huge pop act because you know exactly what you’re looking for.
Stacy Jones: It is. Listen, I do not take that for granted. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I’m in, and just to be constantly working with these amazing artists. It’s not something I take for granted.
Working with acts spread across the board in terms of genre, you probably have opinions about the current state of pop music and where it is today as opposed to, say, 15 years ago.
Stacy Jones: It’s certainly different. Technology has certainly changed the game in so many ways. 15 years ago, you couldn’t make a record in your bedroom that sounded good. Or especially 20 years ago, you had to go to a recording studio, a place that cost $3,000 a day and you had to hire engineers, assistants, and all that. It was a totally different experience prior to the technology that’s come around. You had to play and rehearse the songs and play it with a bunch of guys or gals, and you couldn’t fix your performance later that easily.
Now, you can fix stuff a lot. You can do two or three takes, manipulate, tweak it however you want. You sound like you got it in one take. The other side of it, sonically, music that’s popular now…look at the Chainsmokers, I loved them before I worked with them. I heard “Roses” right when it first came out and I loved the production. It was so unique, so cool. I really appreciate the way they use that sparse production and still have it be so impactful, emotional and powerful.
Anyone that’s really successful electronic artist, that’s a whole other skill set, a whole other way of artistry that didn’t exist 20 years ago. So I think technology has been the main thing. But obviously you see it go back a little bit, now the ’90s are coming back in fashion, music, more kids are playing Jazzmasters through Big Muffs these days, which is cool, but i think music is very cyclical. It’ll be interesting to see what the next wave is gonna be. I wonder if there’s going to be another band of four kids playing guitars that just blow the doors off the industry in the future.
You mentioned the ’90s coming back. You’ve worked with a lot of bands from that era, Matchbox, Everclear, Letters to Cleo, Veruca Salt, and so on. That’s a lot of hits.
Stacy Jones: Oh, it’s amazing, are you kidding? A few years ago I did a tour with the Lemonheads. I played on and off with them over the years, and Evan Dando and I were in similar circles.
Same with Matchbox, same with Juliana Hatfield, these artists that I grew up listening to. Sometimes I’m on stage with them and I have to pinch myself, you know? It’s pretty incredible, and going out with an artist like Matchbox — we’ll play a 90-minute set, and whether you’re a hardcore fan or not you’ll know every song. Those guys sold 30 million plus albums.
In 2000, American Hi-Fi’s debut album came out and did pretty well. The video for “Flavor of the Weak” was everywhere. And then your next album, The Art of Losing, was pretty underrated, I thought. With all of that heavy Hi-Fi activity back then, did your experiences on a major label for that era play a role in all the future gigs and work you’d get as an MD?
Stacy Jones: It did. What ended up happening was, Hi-Fi was just meant to be a side thing. I started writing those songs while I was still playing drums in Veruca Salt. We were on tour with Bush, and I was watching Gavin (Rossdale) every night, thinking, “That guy’s having a good time.” We were hanging around with the Foo Fighters, too, so I was obviously watching Dave Grohl and thinking, “I’m gonna give that a shot.” I’d always noodled on guitar, written songs and stuff, but I wasn’t proficient. So I just bought an acoustic guitar and sat in the back of the bus working stuff out.
Next thing you know we have a record deal. We hadn’t even played a show (laughs). I made a four-track recording with my friend in his apartment, and we got signed to a major label. It was crazy. And then after “Flavor of the Weak” took off, we ended up jumping in full-bore. I did that pretty solid for five or six years. I had built a studio in LA during that time, and called my manager after one of our tours. Hi-Fi was one of those bands that…we did 250+ shows a year, all over the globe. In 2005, after we wrapped up a tour, I called my manager and said, “Hey, I need to take like a year off, I’m burnt. I want to chill out,” and he said, “Hey, great timing because I’m starting to get calls from some bands that want you to produce or write with them.”
So long story short, I ended up taking a producer job at Epic through Sony because I developed a couple artists they signed. So I produced this band — do you remember a TV show called Laguna Beach? There was a band on the show called Open Air Stereo. They were peripheral characters on the show, but they were a real band. High school kids. So because of the show they signed a deal with Epic and Epic called me and said, “We want you to produce a couple songs for these guys,” so I did that. And that led to the guys being offered a slot to play live on TRL on MTV. They had never played a real show, they’d only played a little beach bar in Laguna. So management called me, “Hey, can you take these guys to rock school? Go help them rehearse,” and all that. I went there and helped them rehearse. I ended up helping them actually play guitar and sing background with them on TRL, but off camera — I literally played in the janitor’s closet. It was a janitor’s closet right next to the windows at TRL, so I put a Marshall half-stack in there and stood next to a mop and a big bucket and sang and played rhythm guitar.
Fast forward a couple weeks later, I’m in Nashville to see an artist. I went to Ruth’s Chris, sitting at the bar, having a steak and a glass of wine. And this guy a couple seats down from me leans over and he’s like, “Aren’t you the music director for Open Air Stereo?” He continued, “I work for the management company, and I saw you on TRL.” We chatted and he said, “Look, when you get back to LA call me, I think I’ve got a job for you.”
I get back in LA, call him and he says, “I’ve got this artist, Billy Ray Cyrus’s daughter. I need a musical director and I think you’re the guy.” I wasn’t sure, but he said, “You’re totally wrong. What you did for Open Air Stereo is what I want you to do for her. Put a band together for her that’s a killer band that’s going to be hers for the next 20 years.” And that’s what I did, apparently. It’s still the same five guys with some subs here and there. So that was my first job as an MD.
It basically happened because I was burnt out on touring with Hi-Fi.
What happened with you and Motley Crue?
Stacy Jones: They were recording a couple of new songs for the Red, White and Crue box set. Bob Rock was producing this new stuff with them — he’s a great friend of mine, big-time mentor to me — he produced the first Hi-Fi record. He called me up, “Hey, Nikki Sixx is doing some co-writes with some people for some new Motley and wants to work with you.” Are you kidding me? I’m there.
So Nikki and I got together at my studio and demoed this song. I played drums, Nikki played bass, Jamie from Hi-Fi did guitar. I sang the vocals, just on the demo. A few months later, I’m in LA and Nikki calls me and says, “We’re down at Ocean Way with Bob Rock, recording that song. Vince is out of town doing a reality show. Can you come down and sing along while we play the track so we know where we’re at in the song?”
So I went down to the studio and stood in the vocal booth while Tommy Lee and Nikki recorded this tune, so I did get to sing in Motley Crue for an afternoon. At one point Tommy stopped the recording and was like, “Hey Bob, can you play the demo back? I want to hear this one part,” and I was thinking, “Oh my god this is fucking incredible.”
And the song ended up on the box set, too, but only on the Japanese edition.
You’re a big Cheap Trick fan. Given all of your other work, have you ever imagined yourself working for them in any capacity, in a perfect world? And have you heard their latest albums?
Stacy Jones: I would have killed to play in Cheap Trick, obviously. Daxx Nielsen, Rick Nielsen’s drummer, yeah he sounds great. I’ve seen them with him. I have not heard the new album yet, though. We were on a flight with Cheap Trick back when we were doing Hi-Fi stuff. The guys were Hi-Fi fans, they’d come out and see us sometimes. So we ran into them on a flight, and I ended up sitting next to Rick. They were making some new music and he asked me, “Hey, want to hear some new Cheap Trick?” and put his headphones on me and played some demos. It was awesome.
They’re one of those bands that I always go back to, yeah.
You’re a Dad now, as you and your wife now have a young son that you’ve posted about on Instagram.
Stacy Jones: I do. Waylon Jones, he’s almost 11 months old.
How’s that changed your whole perspective on your busy career?
Stacy Jones: Big-time. When we decided to start a family, I began thinking about, “OK, well I don’t want to be a road dog,” so I started figuring out how to do more MD stuff in-town, in LA. I’d already been heading in that direction, so it was good timing. So now I do a lot more stuff where I’m an MD for an artist but I don’t actually play in the band. I get the band together, put a drummer in there for the tour, so that’s been the main change since I want to be around. I’m doing a lot more work where I can stay in LA and not hit the road.
But Matchbox, I’m always gonna go tour with. Miley, same thing although right now I have a sub in Miley’s band for me because of Matchbox.
With all of your work over the years, people still might not know your name as much as you’d think they would due to your ‘behind the scenes’ aspect of so much — even though millions of people have seen you perform. So when are you writing a book?
Stacy Jones: (laughs) That’s funny you mention that. I’ve had people ask me about that. Especially with people like Butch Walker, who wrote a book a few years back, and the drummer from Semisonic who had the best book on the planet.
Have you read that one? It’s awesome, it’s like … he’s got a great sense of humor. The beginning of the book — I’m paraphrasing — but it basically starts out with him saying, “So you wanna be a rock and roll star?
Here I am, I’m in this band walking down the street, I’ve got a sold-out show tonight. And someone from across the street yells at me, ‘Hey, aren’t you the drummer in Everclear?'” or something like that.
Honestly, I would love to do something like that, there are a shitload of stories that I think are funny and interesting. But listen, if anybody would ever want to help me with that I would jump in.
But really, love the autonomy that I have now. Not that I was ever a big rock star, but there’s a certain responsibility that comes with being the main guy in a band.
You have to do all the interviews and so on. Having experienced that on a small level, I got enough of that to know it’s not necessarily what I want to do.
I love the fact that I can play a show in front of 20,000 people with Miley or Matchbox, whoever, and I can literally walk off the front of the stage and through the crowd.
Maybe a couple people will say something but that’s it, you know? It’s great. More often than not there’s the dad that compliments my drumming, but that’s it.
To have that autonomy is really nice, and I don’t really crave the spotlight. I like being behind the scenes.
November 27, 2020
November 6, 2020