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May 27th, 2009 SHANE DANAHER | Music Stories
 

Bros Forever

Untangling the roots of Portland’s Jaguar Love.

     
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CULTURE PIRATES: Jaguar Love’s Johnny Whitney (left) and Cody Votolato rocking retro tees on the high seas.

After emerging from the suburbs of Seattle in 1997, the Blood Brothers spent a solid decade at the forefront of Northwest hardcore. Before its implosion, the sextet had become a seemingly irrepressible institution with its maniacal song structures and strutting, fashion-conscious stage theatrics. By the time unnamed band drama broke up the group in 2007, the Blood Brothers were too big to disappear completely. So the band’s brain trust—vocalist/keyboardist Johnny Whitney and guitarist Cody Votolato—migrated to Portland to start over. Their new band, Jaguar Love, is nothing less than a stylistic reversal.

“I think our new music is a lot more dance-y,” says Whitney, the high-pitched vocal centerpiece of Jaguar Love, of his newfound musical direction. “It’s kind of more positive in a weird way. It’s a lot less dark. I’m not really a dark person, but I’ve always written really dark lyrics—so [Jaguar Love] is just kind of more fun.”

Some hallmarks of the Blood Brothers remain: Whitney and Votolato still have a propensity for skinny jeans and printed T-shirts (Whitney runs the Crystal City Clothing company on the side), and the frontman’s blond-streaked mane is nearing Robert Plant dimensions. But Jaguar Love is nonetheless a band that has left its sonic roots behind. Following their original group’s demise, Whitney and Votolato co-opted the drumming skills of Jay Clark (of Seattle post-rockers Pretty Girls Make Graves) and created an outfit that was set to make a sonic about-face in the careers of all three musicians. When Jaguar Love debuted, fans were amazed to see it not only tolerated but rejoiced in its verse-chorus retreads and gleefully over-the-top odes to rawk of yore.

“People have kind of gravitated toward saying we have this ‘classic rock’ thing going on,” Whitney says, “but I don’t really get that.”

Genre debates aside, it was confusion over Jaguar Love’s fresh identity that garnered mixed reactions to the band’s 2008 debut, Take Me to the Sea. The album, released by indie-rock institution Matador Records, found itself on an awkward precipice between the neon theatrics of the Blood Brothers’ legacy and the stately catalog of the imprint that brought the world Pavement. Ensuing tours met with timid praise from the Blood Brothers faithful and lukewarm accommodation from the indie devotees that are Matador’s bread and butter.

The Matador deal was doomed to a short lifespan, and just as Jaguar Love parted ways with the label last year, Clark left the fold—unexpectedly dissolving the trio on the eve of an Australian tour. This may have seemed a logical end point for the band, but Votolato and Whitney instead decided to rebuild the group from the ground up, turning a compromised rock band into the realization of a musical partnership more than a decade in the making.

“It was like, well, we’re going to go play a festival in Australia and see if our band works as a two-piece,” says Votolato. “That was really the trial. It was like, if this works, let’s do it this way. And it’s definitely worked.”

Since this revelation, Votolato and Whitney have set to reworking Jaguar Love. Drummers, keyboardists and one irrepressibly stylish bass player hit the cutting-room floor as the duo educated itself in the drum machines and automated samples that are fast becoming its sonic signature.

“This [new album] is going to be a little bit more hip-hop,” Votolato says of the emerging tunes. “Not that we’re going to start rapping or anything, but when I’m making a beat I’m definitely trying to channel Dr. Dre.”

Thus far, road tests of Jaguar Love 2.0 have displayed a level of raucous pomp characteristic of both musicians’ pedigrees. Votolato and Whitney have over a decade of collaborative experience between them, and they’ve used that time to become comfortable with the stage—where they look likely to remain for a long time to come.


SEE IT: Jaguar Love plays Rotture on Saturday, May 30, with Mad Rad, Diamond Liars and DJ Rad. 9 pm. $8. 21+.
 
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