When I caught up with Jeff Klein of My Jerusalem recently, he was taking a break from recording demos of songs that will appear on the Austin, Texas-based band's third album, tentatively scheduled for a late-summer 2014 release. This was unusual—the quartet have been touring nearly nonstop since their excellent second record, Preachers (The End Records), was released in late 2012, with a mere five weeks of downtime over the last year.
But My Jerusalem's work ethic is one of converting one fan over at a time and finessing the dramatic, stately music befitting their name. Klein in particular has an interesting duality about him: He's among the last in a dying breed of "dying for it" rock 'n' roll performers, but seeks to connect on a person-to-person level with the band's audience.
He's had a lot of chances to rein in and release this energy in an increasingly focused manner over the last year. Klein, along with drummer Grant Van Amburgh, bassist Kyle Robarge and multi-instrumentalist Jon Merz, have been all over North America and Europe, often returning to the same market multiple times. In addition to their own headlining tours, My Jerusalem have shared stages with the Psychedelic Furs, the Wallflowers, the Heartless Bastards, the Electric Six, Peter Murphy, X, and even played at a Belgian festival, opening for Sting.
"I think this next trip will be our last trip for this record," Klein says on the phone in a tired voice—the tour hits Plush on Tuesday, Dec. 3.
"But it's been really hard to write on the road. I'm not a huge fan of road records," Klein says, which is why the band has been writing new songs during this rare, brief touring hiatus. "I get bored—it's a weird yo-yo. You're on the road, and then you're at home with the comforts that brings. And then as soon as you get home, you don't know what to do with yourself. It's almost like an addiction. You come home for a few days ... all your senses are so engaged the whole time on tour. You're always on, 24 hours a day. When you come home, after a few days the silence is completely and utterly terrifying. I find myself, after two days, missing my bandmates, who two days before I didn't want to see for eight fucking months."
Terrifying is a good description of much of the band's music. Taking cues from punk, folk, and especially soul, Klein says of My Jerusalem's sound, "A lot of it's more rooted in old R&B and old Stax Records stuff. When we're in the van, you're gonna hear Frank Sinatra and Frank Ocean on the stereo before you hear Frank Black. That kind of thing soul music has—and punk rock and folk music—it speaks to me; it's for the people." This translates into a live show more akin to a Southern Baptist sermon than a standard rock concert. While Nick Cave would provide the easiest comparison—though not intentionally, according to Klein—My Jerusalem are utterly gripping and unhinged on stage while somehow retaining a sense of dignified restraint, not unlike Sinatra in "It Was a Very Good Year."
An unlikely recipe, for sure, but My Jerusalem have that uncommon ability to convert their tour-mates' fans, be it the Psychedelic Furs' (their most recent Tucson appearance was opening for the Furs at the Rialto Theatre in June) or the Electric Six's. At each of their three Tucson club shows in the last year or so, the head count in the audience seemed to double from the group's prior visit. "As far as our popularity goes, the trajectory has been rising, which is good. I feel like even if people aren't familiar with us or the music, people have seemed to have heard of us. We've been lucky. Peter Murphy was a genuine fan of ours and asked us to come out on the road with him."
Klein adds, "There's also more cities that we seem to be more popular in than in others. ... In the Czech Republic we had 4,000 kids singing along. It was mind-blowing. But we're definitely at a strange point where some nights we'll play to a couple hundred people, some nights we'll still play to a handful, and some random nights it'll be 1,000 people. It's hard because you can't settle on what the situation is, you know?" But the band seems to thrive on that unpredictability. "For us, it's more of a grass-roots thing, and to see that happening is great, because partially that's the only way that bands like us can build this.
"I feel like a lot of acts right now are growing up in an age where you put your whole thing together in a computer. I grew up posturing with a broomstick in front of the mirror singing along to Neil Diamond and the Replacements. I guess there's a different showmanship to that that's different than sequencers, and fog and a light show. That has its own place, and it's great also," says the 36-year-old Klein. But the quartet have had plenty of time to expand and grow since their inception in the late 2000s, "by just going out and exercising your craft." Or exorcising—when the lights go down, My Jerusalem conjure up the kind of spirits that easily take control of the room, the hall, or Sting's Belgian festival.