August 2013

Three Guys Named J

Author: Michael Paskevich | Photographer: Photography by Anne

Treble Jay is in the house, a Hilton Head pizza house to be precise, and the rock band’s three founding members are sharing mid-day slices and background about their lives and an original sound that blends earthy blues-rooted influences with modern sonic embellishments.

From left, there’s inventive percussionist John Ruxton, whose claim he’s from Hardeeville is offset by an obvious Irish brogue and knowing smile. He left hometown Dublin in 1994, toured for an extended and inebriated time with bands out of New York City and, “like every other person on this island, first came here on vacation then went home and saw four lanes of traffic on both sides of me.” Ruxton and wife Deborah settled here in 2004, opened a self-named painting and interior design company and set to work on raising a family that now numbers two.

Jesse Watkins played golf and guitar growing up outside New York City, but it was the former skill that brought him south almost 25 years ago; he’s now a well-respected pro at the club at Long Cove. Watkins kept playing music, of course and, via the usual unplanned connections, ended up firing out memorable leads for The Mundahs, a talented rock trio that became local legend in the 1980s and beyond while touring cross-country and coming close to a big-time commercial breakthrough. (The Mundahs still play advance-sellout reunion shows every few months at the Big Bamboo).

Then there’s John Cranford, a bearded Wisconsin boy of Norwegian descent whose regular visits as a kid became permanent after his mom “bought a little condo in Shipyard and I came down with no clear intentions beyond getting some money in my pocket.” He toiled at subsequent food and beverage gigs and worked on his music, one night in 2008 wandering into another (and now-defunct) pizza parlor where Watkins was hosting an open mike night. Cranford’s debut was raw and unpolished.

“He showed up in tight pants, a wool vest and one of those Wisconsin stocking caps, and his (guitar) pedals were nailed to a piece of plywood,” Watkins recalled with a laugh, “but he had a certain tone and it was obvious that he was into doing something original. His voice and his sound drew me immediately.” Watkins joined Cranford for a few numbers that evening, and ensuing sessions cemented a personal connection that helped develop an organic sound that employs minor keys and open tunings, slowly unfolding and hypnotic rhythms and brooding lyrics sometimes delivered awash in auto-tune technology.

Drummer Ruxton joined the fray by way of Internet inquiry and was quickly taken by an alternative approach that granted him fresh-born freedom. “I’m able to get away from the usual pop-rock patterns which can be a bit boring,” he said, “and now I can keep things more spare and airy. I used to be a lot busier player, but this is about finding new tones.”

Likewise, guitarist Watkins says his learned style is changing. “For me, this band is not about playing a lot of notes, but concentrating more on (repeating) signature riffs that enhance the overall mood,” he said.

Cranford has witnessed his own admittedly primitive skills grow stronger, thanks to time and Watkins’ tutelage. “I couldn’t really play the guitar,” he admitted, “but Jesse has shown me so much and taught me other things like how it’s important to have good gear and to take care of it.”

The trio made its debut at an area dive, adopting the Treble Jay moniker at the last second by pooling the opening letters of their first names, while making equally subtle reference to a musical notation about higher frequencies and the band’s lack of a bass player. Fill-in bassists were later enlisted and one of them, Will Snyder, will handle mixing of a second album due later this fall on Cranford-founded Swampfire Records. Another friend and bass player, Phil Sirmans, was recently called upon to augment upcoming studio work and live performances with musicians who have an ever-growing bond.

“They are like older brothers to me, and we’ve become a family that really enjoys being together,” said Cranford, who at age 28 gives way by decades to a pair of more seasoned cohorts. “We’ve really found our sound, and the new album is going to focus on material that’s always changing, getting fuller and getting better. We know each other now and never worry about trying new things and taking chances. We’ll work on the same riffs for hours, and there’s nothing like looking each other in the eye and capturing the feeling we get playing together live.”

Meanwhile, one of Cranford’s side projects, the Rebel Americana-styled Cranford & Sons, has become one of the hottest touring acts in the Southeast, with non-stop gigs that find the front man and company on the road from here to Atlanta for consecutive nights on end. His Treble Jay cohorts couldn’t be happier, having endured their own touring rigors and bids for mainstream success. For now they’re content watching a little brother grow up and find his own way amid an increasingly commercially driven market that favors easy hooks and party-hearty cover tunes.

But Treble Jay isn’t buying into contemporary hype, fashioning a sometimes dark and still- emerging original sound that’s breaking barriers about playing the same old songs for boozy bar patrons. Smarter venue owners have taken note, and the band’s upcoming bookings include a slew of island engagements, among them an August 2 engagement at The Boardroom that will find the trio backing progressive jazz/trip-hop singer and Swampfire Records label mate McKenzie Eddie.

The pizza is long gone. Watkins is due back on the golf course and Ruxton has house painting to do. Cranford, sounding suitably ragged after 17 nights on the road with Cranford & Sons, will return to tireless duties promoting his varied projects. “At the end of the day, it’s still a business,” he said, “but this band is the core, and I don’t foresee us ever stopping. The other stuff helps pay the bills, but what we’re doing together is art for art’s sake.”

Treble Jay’s August Schedule:
August 2 at The Boardroom with Mckenzie Eddy
August 8 at Wild Wing Cafe

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