Jonathan Burks and the Punky Tonk Blues

Photo of Jonathan Burks courtesy of the artist

Photo of Jonathan Burks courtesy of the artist

Words by Erin Wolf

Jonathan Burks has the heart of a honky tonker and the attitude of a punk: this combination makes for some of the finest storytelling songs written this side of the Mississippi. A little swagger fueled on whiskey, gin, and what have you lends its spirit to songs of everyday livin’, the hard way. Burks talks to Fan-belt about what it’s like to whip up a band, a bunch of songs and a show on the fly, old and wise influences and how Europe has somehow caught onto all of this way quicker than we have.

”Ginsoak Baby”, Jonathan Burks

”Ha”, Jonathan Burks

How long have you been playing?

I wrote a lot about my feelings a lot in high school. My deep, dark high school feelings.

I started playing guitar around that time: I had a garage band called Spheres of Influence. We mostly played Guns N’ Roses covers. I started singing and writing songs, proper, in my early 20s: they were mostly songs about my feelings. My heart-achy, horny, anxious 22-year old feelings…I wrote a bunch. I probably wrote a hundred or so songs that I’ve since lost track of, which is probably for the best. They were mostly crap, I’m sure. Nowadays, I’m still writing songs about my feelings; about my feelings like I want to go out and get drunk. Ba dump bump.

Up until now, you’ve pretty much gone solo with what you’ve written; now, you have a backup band on occasion. Does this change anything in regards to how you write?

I’ve written a couple of songs with the band in mind, but most of the tunes we play are songs that I’ve written spanning over the past ten years or so. The band formed three days before our first show, two Locust Street Days ago. I had mentioned to Luther (whom I had played with in a couple of other bands) that I wanted to try and get a band together. He hooked up the show and got us together with Joe who got us together with Dan. They all learned the songs, day one. Day two, we practiced them and day three we played our first show. It wasn’t very good. I was too drunk and well, hell, we had just been a band for three days.

When did you start working on Brown Paper Bag?

We recorded the album last summer with Shane [Hochstetler] at Howl Street. It was super fun. There’s a funny picture of me with my head in my hands looking very stressed and upset. I had sinus issues and was doing some pressure point shit I had looked up on the Internet. I was using a neti pot, and drinking cayenne tea with honey and lemon and not smoking. That night, I went to a party and smoked and drank a bunch and said, ‘fuck it’. The next day, I was totally cool.

We mostly used the takes from day two. We did a couple of overdubs and the mix, and done.

The songs on the album are about everyday life in a working-class, drinking city (Milwaukee). Does it seem like other audiences can genuinely relate to your songs, or do you think it’s something more pinpointed to this city? Are other audiences seeing your subject matter as a novelty?

So far on CD Baby (completely inappropriate disclosure of funds) the sales spread is this: my guitar teacher from when I was a kid in Racine, a dude from upstate New York, Spain, Denmark, Netherlands, France, Australia, and two peeps from Belgium. Nine sales, seven countries. I think the numbers speak for themselves.

Your musical style is an original take on honky tonk and punk: what do you listen to more of?

Right now, I only listen to hardcore rappers and Leonard Cohen. However, my songwriting is completely inspired and informed by the Kristofferson, Nelson, Haggard, Van Zandt, Earle of Steve, Woody-Mother-Fucking-Guthrie alliance. Oh yeah, and John Prine. And Will Oldham. I also enjoy seeing punk shows or heavy rock, or whatever the kids are calling it nowadays. They are usually the most fun shows.

In all your musical travels, have you ever incorporated any of those experiences into your music?

For years, I’ve been trying to write a song about how much I hate Phoenix, but I just can’t seem to find the right words.

Jonathan Burks performs this Saturday, March 21st at Mad Planet (533 E. Center). Also playing: Wizard of Cause and Spransy & Kolb. 10 p.m. 21+

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