Though his surname rhymes with "bright side," the Joggers' singer/guitarist Benjamin Whitesides is no optimist. In 2003, his Portland-based group released its debut disc, Solid Guild, earning rave reviews from Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. They played sold-out shows in support of Hot Hot Heat. Glass-half-full analysis: critical acclaim, excellent exposure. From Whitesides's perspective, this wasn't enough.
He'd waited for more than a decade to make an album, writing tunes almost every day since he was a preteen playing trumpet, and now that he'd achieved his goal, his life—and the music landscape—hadn't really changed. It was as if he had spent all that time preparing a gift, only to see the recipient smile weakly and shrug. He was devastated.
"I felt like Solid Guild was a failure," Whitesides says. "It didn't seem to be striking a nerve, and I felt like I was pursuing something that was a waste of my time. Those Hot Hot Heat shows were enormous, but the crowds weren't there for us. It was a weird combination of being stressed about the big shows and feeling irrelevant."
Reeling, Whitesides "had a complete breakdown," canceled an in-progress tour, and retreated to his parents' New England home, where he took a six-week hiatus from music. Though he didn't pick up an instrument during this period, many of the melodies for what would become this year's With a Cape and a Cane still spiraled in his head.
"As soon as Solid Guild came out, I started tearing it apart," he says. "I'm always thinking about how we could do it better next time. I wish I could chill out for a little bit, but it doesn't happen. I feel, on some neurotic level, like every day that I don't get a chance to write something is wasted. That was the most frustrating thing about touring. You're out here leading a musical life, and yet it's much less stimulating for me because I don't get to sit in my room and work on different ideas."
The Joggers returned to the road with the September release of With a Cape, another critically approved amalgam of polyrhythmic percussion, fractal funk guitars, robust bass lines, and four-piece vocals that range from honeyed harmonies to an ominous hornet-swarm buzz. Most songs contain danceable segments, but the erratic time-signature shifts make them choreographic land mines.
"We'll get a pocket of people moving, but we've yet to host any major disco parties," Whitesides says. "First there has to be people there, which is no guarantee."
For many groups, hometown stops provide a welcome respite from the low double-digit draws on small-scale tour outings, but the Joggers aren't expecting much of a welcome-back embrace.
"I don't want to say people are hostile to us, because that would give us too much credit," says Whitesides. "A lot of bands who are not warmly received in their hometowns explain it in arrogant terms, such as, 'People are jealous because we're on a label.' That's not the case with us. There are so many bands in Portland, so many young people doing creative things, and there's this standoffish attitude, like, 'Why should I be interested in what you're doing?'"
Concertgoers will see a more expansive side of the Joggers, known for their succinct, if pressure-condensed, four-minute songs. For example, "Yawning Brahmins," an intriguing tangle of slap-tapped drums and twiddly guitars, ends with a fade on With a Cape, but it becomes a compositional choose your own adventure when played live, with the band following different paths of its labyrinthine structure.
"(Vocalist) Dan Wilson, the new guy in the band, is a recovering hippie, and so is our drummer Jake (Morris)," Whitesides explains. "We're getting into more jammy-type sequences, which lets the songs simmer on the stove."
This approach allows for some relatively relaxed passages, addressing Whitesides's sharpest criticism of the Joggers' work ("it's so busy that it's taxing, more fun to play than to listen to"). But while he perpetually works at correcting the band's perceived shortcomings, he's also aware that the internal issues that briefly led him to leave music altogether haven't completely, or even substantially, subsided.
"Those things aren't gone, but I'm working on dealing with them better," he says. "There's a band mantra now: 'Know your ABCs—Always Be Chill.'"email@example.com