ABOVE: MICHAEL RUNION (SECOND FROM RIGHT) AND HIS JJAMZ BANDMATES.
The five best friends who make up supergroup JJAMZ have an unshakable bond—so it’s fitting that their debut album is titled Suicide Pact. After a decade of friendship, Z Berg (The Like), James Valentine (Maroon 5), Alex Greenwald (Phantom Planet), Jason Boesel (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley) and Michael Runion formed JJAMZ after a night of bar karaoke and proceeded to record and write songs in between the individual members’ other bands touring schedules. And fans of each of those other bands will find something to like in JJAMZ: its members’ years of experience coalesce perfectly in the band’s California-pop melodies. JJAMZ self-produced their album with the help of Jason Lader (Maroon 5, Rilo Kiley, Julian Casablancas), and debuted their first single, “Heartbeat,” as a summer anthem; as fall hits, JJAMZ is playing a variety of shows throughout New York City in support of their debut album at the CMJ festival.
We spoke with Michael Runion on how surreal being in JJAMZ feels and how he would get stitches for anyone in the band.
ILANA KAPLAN: Hi there!
MICHAEL RUNION: Well hello! I’m in Roslyn, Washington where they filmed Northern Exposure.
KAPLAN: Right now?
RUNION: Right now! I just ate half a pound of hand-picked organic blueberries from a café, which were incredibly delicious. Now I’m trying to find some shade on the street. How are you?
KAPLAN: I’m doing well, thanks!
RUNION: Where are you based out of?
KAPLAN: I’m based out of New York.
RUNION: Oh! We were just there.
KAPLAN: Cool! You guys are playing in Philly this weekend, right?
KAPLAN: Nice. From what I know, you and the members of JJAMZ have all been friends for a long time, how did the idea to come together as a band come about, since you guys have all been in your own separate bands?
RUNION: We all have known each other for over 10 years. I actually met Z when she was 14. I dated her older sister.
KAPLAN: Oh, wow!
RUNION: Jason wasn’t even in Rilo Kiley yet. James had just moved here. Maroon 5 was still called “Maroon.” Phantom Planet hadn’t even made their second record yet, so “California” hadn’t even been out yet. It was a long time ago. We just became friends over the years. At one point, we went out one night to karaoke at a bar. It was kind of lame. We were like, “Let’s go back to James’ house.” James had set up a little studio in one of his guest rooms. So we went back and Jason put down a drum beat, Alex started playing chords over it, and I played bass over that. Then, James was like, “I’m going to record vocals.” Z went into the shower attached to the guest room; we put up a mic, and she sang this song that none of us had heard before. That became the demo for our first song, which is on our record. Not that version, but we made that demo, and we were like, “This is awesome! We already love hanging out. Let’s just do this all the time!” We got together the next day, and we wrote a song called “Get What You Want,” which eventually became the first song on our record. We didn’t set out to make a record, but we knew when we hung out that good things happened: when we had time. Everyone was on tours; Maroon 5, Rilo Kiley and The Like were all touring. It was hard to make time for it. As time passed in the studio, we recorded six songs. We didn’t know what we were going to do with them. We wrote some more songs, then we thought, “Oh, we should make a record.” We tracked those songs. We recorded those songs, and we started mixing the record last year. Now it’s done and out in the world. It’s really crazy for me that it actually exists. It was kind of a long process.
KAPLAN: Do you think that it’s kind of strange that you and the other members knew each other for so long and all ended up in these very successful musical groups, and then came together?
RUNION: I don’t think it’s strange as far as everyone’s success. I just think everyone in the band is so talented on their own. I mean, I still listen to the first couple of Rilo Kiley records. I listen to The Execution of All Things and More Adventurous. I was listening to them in my van the week before we left. I was at rehearsal, and I was like, “These are good records.” I didn’t know if Jason had heard them in a while. I kind of had an idea of Alex’s talents before we started the band because I had known him for a long time, but being in a band with him, I had never met someone who is so versatile, musically. It’s hard to really explain; anything asked of him can be done, and anything not asked of him will be done as well. Really, I just can’t believe I get to be in a band with all of them. I said that to Jason, “When I met Alex, I had no idea that I would ever be in a band with him.” I met them in 2000 and 2001. The fact that now we’re on tour in the middle of Washington is pretty wild. I’m always surprised that we’re all in a band together, but it’s starting to feel normal.
KAPLAN: You guys titled your record Suicide Pact. Those are two very strong words. What was the decision behind it?
RUNION: Well, that song was one of the later songs recorded, “Suicide Pact.” I think we all just knew that song would be the title of the record. It was a unanimous decision. The song is about friendship; it’s not actually about killing yourself. We all saw it as, “This is our record and our statement to the world.” Basically, we’re blood brother and blood sister. We would die for each other, sort of. Maybe break an arm for someone. I’d get stitches for everybody in the band, for sure. This kind of represents how deep our bond is. We’re so close, and this is us. We’re in it. We’re doing it! I hope no one thinks we’re encouraging self-harm or anything. It’s more about the feeling you have when you have a close-knit group of friends. It kind of feels like it’s us, and the world is a totally separate thing from what we have. It’s a romanticized friendship.
SUICIDE PACT IS OUT NOW. JJAMZ WILL BE PLAYING THE AUDIO PERV CMJ SHOWCASE TONIGHT AT THE BOWERY ELECTRIC AND THE BAEBLEMUSIC SHOWCASE TOMORROW AT SPIKE HILL. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.