The Bronx's Joby Ford on pranking their way onto Island Def Jam
An interview with the guitarist about going to a major label for their 2006 album.
Hello and welcome to REPLY ALT, the only newsletter about music in the world. Black Friday is coming up and I am not impervious to its capitalist charm. I’m gonna run a sale over at my merch store and will send out an email with a discount code on Thanksgiving night after my loved ones have grown sick of me bragging about how successful my book is at dinner. (I have asked them to make me a placemat that says Bestselling Author but we’ll see.) Oh and as always, paid REPLY ALT subscribers get the jump on the sale, plus deeper discounts. Here, I will even knock the price of an annual subscription down if you wanna get in on it…
Anyway, like I’ve been saying a bunch lately, I have A LOT of leftover material from SELLOUT. I interviewed some poor subjects for over an hour and then ended up only using a quote or two in the end. (Please see previous cutting-room floor interviews with Less Than Jake, Murder by Death, Texas Is the Reason, Anti-Flag, and Thrice.)
Since the Bronx toured with the Distillers, I figured I should talk to guitarist Joby Ford for the chapter about them. But, after the long and magical adventure that is The Editorial Process, only a single quote from him made it into the book. A quote about doing drugs. C’est comme ça.
But the Bronx have their own interesting major-label story. The LA punk band only had one album under their belt before getting snatched up by Island Def Jam for the release of 2006’s The Bronx. So how’d that happen so fast? Here’s Ford to explain…
It seemed like the Bronx got on a major label pretty quickly. You did that one record with Ferret and then went to Island Def Jam. How’d that happen?
Joby Ford: We’d made a record and Island Def Jam basically paid Ferret to cover the cost of Ferret putting it out, because it was already done. So they signed the band for record number two. I had never been in a signed band. None of us had. It was crazy. The band I was in previously before I started the Bronx was this band called Letdown. There was this club up on Santa Monica called the Garage. My buddy booked the Tuesday night punk night. So we’d play once or twice a month. We were so bad that we were the last band on a Tuesday and it’s 11:30. There are two people in the club, we start playing and by song two, they're gone. The bartender waves his hands and says “Guys, guys, guys. There’s nobody here. What do you say you pack it up and everybody goes home early?” [Laughs] And I went from nights like that to being… I think we got 12 different offers from labels [for the Bronx].
Wow. So what do you attribute that to?
Just fucking around, pretty much. We made some demos—this was early on in using the internet for music, kind of the Wild West then. There was this guy we knew who worked for a record label—I think Jive Records. And so we sent him this three-song demo we did. Then he contacted a guy by the name of Jonathan Daniel who manages Fall Out Boy and Weezer. At the time, I think he managed Gilby Clarke. He came in and liked the band. He was like, “Let’s put you in the studio with Gilby Clarke.” I was like, “What?!” This all happened within a week. So, all of a sudden, we had this management deal and he was the one who ramped it up. We played this show at the Troubadour opening for this band called the Dragons who eventually canned their guitar player who would end up joining the Bronx. So [Daniel] basically put all these A&R guys in the room together and we had a good show and that’s how he got bands signed.
But we used to fuck around. We’d get these emails and we never took anything seriously. We’d get emails from labels and reply in Morse code. We were just fucking around. But in those days, we got so many free records and that’s all we cared about. “If we’re gonna take a meeting with you, we need the Who’s box set.” And they’d send it to you!
Did you keep them or sell them?
I kept them.
OK. Because I’ve talked to so many people who said they’d go to the Capitol Records building and then sell the box sets at Amoeba.
Oh yeah, there was some of that going on. But I never asked for anything I didn’t want. They’d throw that stuff at you all day long. This one dude from, I think Roadrunner, he was like “send me the rock”—that’s what they called it. So I told him to give us his FedEx number to send him a CD. So he gave us the FedEx number and we filled the whole FedEx box full of rocks. Just that kind of stuff. Looking back, we were maybe trying to build a lore.
Were you doing that type of stuff because you weren’t interested in the offers? Or was it a deliberate way to make yourself seem cool?
I don’t know. We were just jerks. I never thought we’d get a record deal, or that 18 years later I'd still be playing my guitar for a living.
Why did you decide to go to Island Def Jam eventually?
I think at the time we liked their roster of bands. It seemed like the right place to associate with at the time, and then a year later everybody got fired and they got a new president. When our major-label debut came out, it got shelved.
Which one got shelved?
Our second record. Nobody at the label did anything.
Oh, so it was released, it just didn’t get a marketing push.
Oh yeah, it came out. But at that point, Island Def Jam turned into a pop label. L.A. Reid was there. People trip out when I tell them this, but the Bronx and the Killers got signed at the same time, by the same guy. We used to play a lot of concerts together, which blows people’s minds, because they obviously have gone on to be this huge band. But they’d take our Mariachi band on arena tours. We did a Christmas song together. After all these years, we still talk.
Going to a big label is a big decision as it is, and then, suddenly, your people are gone. Was that scary?
Probably. But then I had this idea. I think we spent like $275,000 on our second record. Like, a stupid amount of money. And then on our third record, they owed us more because of the way the deal was structured. So I told them, “Look, if you guys give us X amount of dollars, I can buy a studio.” [Laughs] So they bought us a recording studio. Or they gave us the money and we found stuff on Craigslist. But after our A&R guy Rob Stevenson got canned, then we had two A&R guys and nobody knew what was going on. So I asked to be let go and they said, “Cool.” So Island Def Jam paid for our second record which they didn’t really work on, they bought us a recording studio and we recorded our third record, and then they let us go. I was like, “What is going on here?”
It seemed like a time when they were just cutting their losses. Geoff from Thursday said the same thing—that they were on the hook for another record with Island, and he went in there just man-to-man with L.A. Reid and asked to be let go and they parted on a handshake.
Yeah, that’s the kind of money that was being thrown around in those days. Looking back on it, I think that was the end of it. It was an interesting experience. I’m glad I got to make one of those big-budget major-label records that I’ll never get to make again. Of course, at the time, you’re like, “Of course I’ll have the ahi tuna delivered. Can I get a bottle of whatever?” [Laughs]
In the 90s, when more bands were doing deals with major labels, there was this fear of a backlash over selling out. Is that something you guys worried about?
Of course, yes, because we grew up in those times. The reason there was such a backlash and people were turning on bands for selling out is because everybody was making a lot of money—independent bands. SST artists were moving tons of records. Early Epitaph stuff, those records were selling millions of copies. But then the band goes and does a commercial, and that just made them look like they were total sellouts. Now, I think if you got a sync in a commercial or a movie, people are like, “Yeah, alright!” It’s almost championed now.
When you went to Island, did you hear from your fanbase? Were people pissed?
Yeah, of course. We’d played a handful of shows and got picked up, whereas some bands had been struggling for years. We were on tour with Thursday, actually, and Piebald was opening. The street teamers would come up and plaster the whole club with posters promoting your release back then. And I was like, “Man, this was getting a little intense.” But Travis from Piebald goes, “I wish someone would do that for our band.” He was kind of pissed at me. It was just stuff like that. If I had to go back, I’d probably do the same thing. Those were good times.