In the mid 90s, Californian alternative quintet Dishwalla shot to fame with the release of their debut album, Pet Your Friends. The album’s third single, “Counting Blue Cars,” became a number one Billboard hit in 1996, and remains the band’s best-known to this day. Through subsequent albums (1998’s And You Think You Know What Life’s About, 2002’s Opaline and 2005’s Dishwalla), the band would keep experimenting with textures and sonics, as well as a revolving lineup that would help push them forward.
Since 2008, Dishwalla reformed, founding bassist Scot Alexander and drummer George Pendergast having returned to the fold. They would then conceptualize and eventually complete Juniper Road, their first album in over a decade. With a release date slated for May 5th of this year, the album will also be the first to feature new vocalist Justin Fox, following original front man JR Richards’ solo career pursuit.
I caught up with the band’s lead guitarist, Rodney Browning Cravens, to discuss their formative years, the creation of Juniper Road, and their endurance in an everchanging music industry. Ultimately, their grounded vision of success is a principle firmly adopted from the beginning, and one by which they continue to thrive.
ME: You guys came together during alternative rock’s peak in the early 90s. How did that initial chemistry develop between the band as you were starting out?
Rodney: Before we started making our way and getting somewhere, we were sort of a synthpop band. Believe it or not, yeah (laughs)! For a lot of reasons, our writing situation wasn’t working. JR and I had started jamming with Scot and George. When we started writing as a band, we’d come in with our manager, Dave Young, who was feeding us all the latest music.
We were seeing this new era of rock n’ roll, for lack of a better term. I hate calling it ‘alternative’ rock (laughs), but it’s just rock n’ roll to me. At the time, it had a feeling that was so different from all the previous decades. For the first time, artists were making this great music that you wouldn’t really expect to hear on the radio, you know what I mean?
ME: Yup. And being in such a diverse array of influences at the time, you were able to absorb those to the same extent as the influences you’d grown up with, right?
Rodney: That’s true; definitely true. You can hear in our music what I’d consider some of that British 80s synth stuff. We’d all listened to the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen—there’s that, but there’s a lot of great music too. So, you’ll always hear little threads of it in the production of our albums, whether it be the riffs or some of the sounds. It’s all kind of a throwback to what we grew up with. And I think [the 90s] was a great era for bands that it forced us to get ourselves together even more (laughs)! To get noticed, it was a difficult time. Radiohead was just coming up, and of course, Pearl Jam. There was a lot of exciting new music that was making it on the radio.
In retrospect, we were told by a bunch of radio experts that our song, when it hit, really widened the landscape for radio, so bands like Tonic and Matchbox Twenty can become a new mainstream sound. Even though, at that point, it was considered alternative.
ME: I was on Spotify listening to your music, and I noticed you were on a Carpenters compilation from 1994, called If I Were a Carpenter, with the song “It’s Going to Take Some Time.” Was that your very first instance of real recognition?
Rodney: You know what? It was. It’s a really interesting story. We’d just gotten signed to A&M records, and were already working on Pet Your Friends. We read in the Hollywood Reporter that A&M was putting out this compilation record—basically alternative bands doing Carpenters songs. Then when we saw some of the company on that, we were like, “Oh, man, we gotta get on there!” We tracked up a version of “Close to You” and sent it to the producer of the whole project, Matt Wallace. This is before the Dishwalla record had even come out; it was still in the making.
Anyway, he was totally into it, but the song we’d chosen had already been recorded and was slated to be the Cranberries’ version. So, we went through a list of songs that we hoped would make it on the record. Fast forward to working with Matt Wallace in the studio, and when we put it out, it ended up becoming a single! We even made a video for it down in LA. The weird thing was, while we were out in Philadelphia making Pet Your Friends, our cover was blowing up on the east coast. It was a little confusing because to us, we’d just gotten a record deal, did this thing, and now it’s on the radio, like, “Oh, this is easy! This is awesome! We love this job!”
It seemed so easy the way it all happened, but it also concerned us at the time because we didn’t want to be known for coming out first with a cover song. At the time, Lemonheads did that with “Mrs. Robinson,” and we didn’t want to dilute what we were as a band. But once our cover was on the airwaves, that was out of our control. It ran its course, but it also allowed us to play on the Jon Stewart Show, get lots of press, and really build our road chops.
ME: You’d mentioned being signed to A&M, which, from my understanding, had a reputation for their collaborative efforts with artists. Did you have a good relationship with them in the same way?
Rodney: Absolutely! And quite honestly, that was one of the reasons we chose them. While we were getting looked at by labels, the very last one that made an offer, I’m almost certain, had a bidding war. The deciding factor, besides the ins-and-outs of the deals they were offering us, was the atmosphere of the label. [A&M had] this long, long, history of being super artist-friendly and nurturing careers. Not just going for the single, but planning out careers that would entail three or four records. That obviously appealed to us a lot (laughs)! The atmosphere the was inspiring, to be in the Charlie Chaplin soundstage in A&M records—the whole lot in Hollywood. And it was truly part of our success; they were an amazing machine for us.
Unfortunately, they got swallowed up by Seagram’s, the big corporate takeover—right when we were going to release our second record, actually. But I feel like we’ve been through some great times. The harsh times were out of our control, but they made us who we are.
ME: That’s for sure, man. It really seemed like a good run.
Rodney: Yeah, they were spending money and had long-term goals for bands. That, I don’t really see much of anymore; it’s a completely different record business now. Do they call them records, by the way? Album business! MP3 business! Files! I dunno (laughs)!
ME: Even after your major label stint, you’ve come this far. That’s awesome that you’d moved on despite dramatic shifts in the industry and musical tastes. Have you always held the mentality to keep expanding and experimenting stylistically?
Rodney: We have, you know? And it’s a tricky balance especially when you’re writing and, first and foremost, aim to have the best band ever. We’ve stuck together through the good and bad times, the labels, and all the changes we’ve been through. Apparently, according to people, we have a sound—a collaboration of something that happens when you play together. It’s always going to sound inherently like us. But if we didn’t push our limits, we’d end up staying “that 90s band that made it two decades ago,” you know what I mean?
So, we always try to approach it sort of the same way we did before we were signed, which is, “What are we into now (laughs)?” I feel like we’ve actually achieved perfection—the growth forward, but also, the recognizable sound of the band that so many people come to expect over the years.
ME: On the topic of capturing that sound, let’s talk about your new album, Juniper Road. That album was recorded in Eric Burdon’s retreat, Joshua Tree. Being in that type of environment, what did that inspire from a creative standpoint?
Rodney: If you ever visit Joshua Tree, it’s so visually inspiring. There’s an amazing energy out there if you’re any kind of writer or artist. Basically, you go out and be in solitude. Juniper Road was certainly years in the making, but it was recorded in solitude on Juniper Road, in Joshua Tree. It was just a means for us to get away from our everyday lives, and, as I would put it, dive a little bit further down the rabbit hole. It was an extremely positive experience, and we’ll probably do it again next time around.
Eric was so generous to offer us his place. The only challenge of the whole experience was that the place he lent us was technically empty. It didn’t have plates, tables, chairs—nothing! We ended up using all the gear, recording systems—it was like a boot camp. I would be up for all hours and then go to sleep, then someone else would come in and pick it up. We spent years writing, but we’d only spent 10 days in the studio. We weren’t stopping to listen too much; we just went for it.
ME: Right from the first track, “Sirens,” I get a sense that you were letting your ideas take their time to simmer. There’s an ample balance of dynamics that even on heavier tracks (“Mazelike Garden,” “Now I Know”), the impact feels very natural. Was that an especial priority for you guys during the recording process?
Rodney: Absolutely. First and foremost, we wanted to have a balance between songs. That’s where our producer came in handy to us, Sylvia Massy. She helped us think outside the box, has crazy ears, and is unbiased. Given that we have five songwriters, the challenging part, as always, was the collaboration. It’s just as you’d said, that space—I’ve heard that from several musician friends of mine. It takes quite a long time to settle in, but we just worked on it until it felt right.
I do know that with “Sirens” in particular, it came down to writing a song we wanted to open a show with. We were a little frustrated, after the last eight years of playing live, for not having that kind of song. And we said, “You know what, man? We need a song that is up-tempo and kicks ass, and has the bass drum thing we do. Basically, a Dishwalla sound that’s pumping and fast with that live edge—very reminiscent of when we first got signed, that whole era of alternative rock.
ME: This is also the first album to feature Justin Fox instead of JR. What is about Justin’s voice that resonates with you, and really gives this album its identity?
Rodney: He’s definitely a very different singer. We could have done a cattle call and gotten a JR clone to do this, but we knew [having Justin] would feel right with where we wanted to go with the band. We’d felt like his edgier voice lent itself to some of the timbres that we wanted to explore on this record. Justin’s brought a lot to the table, not only as a vocalist, but he has undeniable stage presence. He has an effective vocal deliverance that sits well in the bed of music we create. It’s right on point, and those were big shoes to fill, honestly. I want to give him one of the VIPs on this record for getting it in, stepping it up, and for our needing to go in a new direction, while also keeping our core fans happy.
ME: What I gather from your switching singers is that it’s not totally a brand new integration, in the sense that you guys were part of the same group of friends. Even though there may have been a bit of a rift between you guys and JR in the beginning, did you ultimately find closure and allow yourselves to part amicably?
Rodney: I don’t think we’ve had any rifts necessarily. We certainly had no high-profile fights or knockdowns physically. I think it was just that he’d gotten tired of collaborating. And you know, that’s what Dishwalla’s always been and how the sound continues. Quite honestly, it’s hard for the band to share in collaboration. It’s like five sculptors working on a sculpture together, making a move and then someone goes, “Why’d ya do that!? That’s lame!” For lack of a better word, we were really hard on each other. He probably got tired of being bossed around, the way we do to each other, you know? I just think he didn’t want to do it anymore.
It was hard even on [Juniper Road]. But from my experience with this group of guys, when someone brings an idea that goes through the machine—I’d affectionately call it the “Dishwalla chopping block,” where some of your most loved parts might get hacked and left for dead (laughs)—it just needs to always get better. Sometimes it can be a creative compromise. But with this band, it will always seem like it ends up getting better once you filter through this collaborative collective. It’s just the way you play and the decisions you come up with—what you’re into, what you think is lame, so on and so forth.
ME: Otherwise, it was all good then.
Rodney: Yeah, I can’t think of any specific rift other than [JR’s] wanting to do his own thing, and maybe taking a little too much credit for our joint efforts, but that’s about as far as it goes, honestly, you know? It was a long ten years, then we took a hiatus. We’d all experienced loss in some form—family, friends, just real life experiences, you know what I mean? And I guess to wrap the subject with that time, there came appreciation for what we do best, which is collaborating, and having that magnetic feeling you’d get when we came out.
We reformed probably around 2008, with the other original members. With us getting back together, it’s kind of funny. It started with George Pendergast and I reconnecting at our kids’ preschool (laughs)! We had our Tuesday night meeting, where we would go and drink coffee and listen to all the latest in child development. He and I would sit in the back of the room, and of course we’d be listening, but we’d also be like, “Dude, check out this riff on this song.” He and I are old, great friends of the band. We just reconnected, and as we were getting more offers and ideas to keep working, it fell together pretty easily.
ME: After making Juniper Road, in what ways do you feel your musical chops have grown? Not only the band as a whole, but you, Rodney, as a guitarist?
Rodney: Oh, jeez (laughs)! That’s harder for me to assess being in my shoes than it might be for someone else. I believe we’re writing better songs. It’s always been about creating interesting parts for me also, and taking it out of bar chords. I’ve honestly always done my best and have been learning nonstop. I do know that in the time off, I’d taught guitar quite a bit, part time, and just learned new songs that I’d otherwise never learn on my own.
Learning songs teaches you so much. I wouldn’t necessarily call Juniper Road a ‘guitar hero’ record. There’s some moments, but in general, it’s more of a power rock record with some ambience.
ME: It’s got power, but it also has a lot of textures in it.
Rodney: Yeah. That’s what began the growth from something like Pet Your Friends, which is straight-up alternative rock. We’ve just gotten better at recording, layering, and making records. And I’ll reiterate: our whole goal with this record was to infuse that live energy we’ve been harnessing for the last eight years. That was on the forefront of everyone’s mind, “Let’s get back to what made us fall in love with this in the first place, and just make a rock record.”
ME: What it comes down to is building your live chops.
Rodney: Yup (laughs)! We’re just coming off three shows this past weekend. They were the first shows where we played 60 songs in our set, which is a lot, and it was awesome. The fans were into it, we were into it—it just felt a little bit like a new beginning, honestly.
ME: It’s clear that the industry has changed in a lot of ways. But even so, you’re still able to achieve substantial success on your own terms. Have these changes inspired you to view success from more of a grounded perspective?
Rodney: Maybe you should ask some of my friends, but I feel like I’ve always been pretty grounded and low key about it (laughs). The transitory nature of how long a band could last, we all know how it is. We’re here for the right reasons, and we feel like it shows in everything we do. This entire effort was us away from our families in places we should be. It feels pure, if that makes sense—pure and on point. And having been so involved with every record we’ve ever made, I’d have to say that this one’s my favorite.
ME: Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?
Rodney: Sure! A huge, warm hug and thank you for all these years of support, even when we were technically not together. As we’ve rebuilt with our new singer, Justin, you have been so awesome with him and with us. Honestly, without that popular demand, we’d just do this as a hobby, getting together every once in a while. You’re making this possible for us, and we love you.