Jimmy Montague is seemingly just another boy living in New York, living off the high of a dream. Music isn’t the only thing he does, but it is the thing that seemingly keeps him alive. His latest album Casual Use dropped last month. Its a breezy but thoughtful album that weaves together George Harrison-style melodies with big soul, jazz and blues motifs to knit together the perfect musical ensemble to accompany you for an afternoon stroll around the big city. When Jimmy isn’t keeping the spirit of his favorite Beatles and blues pianists live through his solo work, he plays in the emo band Perspective, A Lovely Hand to Hold, a fact that influences his solo work in myriad ways, from tightening the emotional insights of his music, to giving it that extra patina of bitter grit and contemplation that is often missing from retro revival acts of this style.
You can buy and stream Jimmy Montague’s Causal Use below, and keep scrolling for an exclusive interview with the man himself:
Interview conducted on April 6 via email. It has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.
Who are the players on Casual Use and what do they play?
This record featured a good amount of friends as featured soloists as well as the brass and woodwind sectional. My horn ensemble includes Matt Knoegel (Tenor and Alto Sax), Mike Schmidt (Tenor Sax and Flute), Matt Schmidt (Baritone Sax), Ben Barnett (Trombone, Trombonium), Josh Bruneau (Trumpet). I also brought in some friends like Connor Waage to take a guitar solo on the title track, Matt Walsh for some extra trumpet parts, Michela Christianson to bolster the violas, and Jacob McCabe on Organ. The rest was performed by me.
How did you select your collaborators for this release?
With all of the backing band, I am pretty determined to do that myself. I think it helps me practice and forces me to be a more rounded musician. But when it comes to something like a solo, you want someone who has dedicated themselves to their craft on one instrument. I’m trying to get better at relinquishing some of that control in my music when I know that the decision is the right one. All of these featured musicians are good friends, and I trust their judgment and their skill. For the most part, I knew which songs I wanted to feature specific people for (title track guitar solo for Con, Few Less for a Flute solo etc) but I also relied heavily on Matt Knoegel for his horn arrangements, as it was something I’m fairly new to.
What was the first song you wrote that appeared on Casual Use and how did it impact the rest of the songwriting process for the record?
I suppose technically the first songs written for CU were Stuck With You, Maybe One More, and Early Service. Those all came from the same session, where it was just me playing on a friend’s little Pianette in the studio. I had originally wanted to set out and do a record where it was only Piano. It was an instrument I considered myself extremely limited in, and I wanted to change that. Those songs existed in the strictly piano arrangement for some time, but the first Actual song I wrote for the record was the title track. Once I started to embellish that one, I sort of threw the “Only Piano” mindset out the window, and took those first three and reworked them. I still made it a goal to write all of these songs on Piano primarily, and I think it forced me to become a better player.
Did the pandemic create any obstacles for you in recording this record?
To be honest, it made things much easier. Because I write all of these myself and play most of the instrumentation, it didn’t really put much of a wedge in the plan. When my job initially went on work from home, I just packed up my gear, took about two weeks up in New Hampshire at the PALHTH rehearsal space, and tracked the skeleton in one go of it. I brought it back to new york and filled in the gaps. The only hang-up was tracking the live horns. I knew that I wanted the recording to be as a group, I wanted to get that feeling of having the big backing band like Earth Wind and Fire or Tower Of Power, I didn’t want to just layer it with everyone playing separately. Luckily, we timed it pretty well and managed to get everyone safely in one spot last summer, and tracked the horns in a pretty long day session. I finished the record between March and October of 2020 with relatively no hangups. I’m pretty fortunate for that.
Is that you walking around NYC in the video for “70th Avenue Hustle”? How was that video conceived of and shot?
That is me! Over the course of my solo songwriting, I’ve noticed that some songs tend to fall out of you when you don’t expect it. 70th Ave came together entirely in my head on the walk home from work in Union Square to Ridgewood. I got home and immediately demoed it out, even the horn solo is the original take from the first demo. I wanted the music video to reflect that feeling. I took the subway over to the building, I had actually lost that job during the pandemic haha so I was only allowed in the lobby. When I’m walking home from work, it’s usually Head Down, Hood Up, Keep Walking. Your only line of sight is your sneakers, sometimes looking up to make sure you didn’t forget to turn. I pretty much just grabbed my phone, held it at eye level, and did my walk home. Watching it back, it feels pretty true to how it felt that day writing that song.
What era of Doobie Brothers are you referencing on “Always You” and what do you find attractive about that particular stage of their career?
To be honest, the only era of DB that interests me musically is 1976-1980. Pretty much from the records Takin It To The Streets to One Step Closer, the Michael McDonald Years. I’m much more interested in the Soul era than the Americana Rock era. I just like the idea of Michael sort of saying, “I know what’s about to Hit so hard in the next few years, I know what’s gonna happen, just trust me, give me the keys, let’s fuckin ride.” Those records just have locked in grooves. All of those albums have flawless tempo choices. My aunt actually got me into them when I was younger with a bunch of mixed CDs she gave me, and it was all from the Soul era.
The piano melody on “An Unfamiliar Record” is really delicious. What were your reference points for this song in particular? I have my guesses, but I want to hear it from you.
That piano melody came first, actually in a Guitar Center in Portland. I actually still have the voice memo saved “Portland Melody”. It was on a PALHTH tour, and we were picking up some sticks and cables and just killing some time and I wrote it on some display piano and took a little voice memo in my phone of it. To be honest, I don’t really remember what I was going for with the melody, I’d love to hear your guess haha. But the rest of the song went through MANY interpretations, most of which were so bad I almost had to abandon the song. Finally, I sort of wedged the melody into a sort of Steely Dan conglomerate song between Only A Fool Would Say That and Sign In Stranger. I felt I could sort of get away with slipping that melody in there haha.
Even though you’re the kind of artist who seems to wear their influences on their sleeve, do you find that people have trouble pinpointing the origins of your sound?
The only time I’ve found that people don’t really “get” it is if they don’t listen to that music. Some younger parents didn’t really bludgeon their kids with 60’s-70’s rock the way mine did haha. But even if they don’t hear the Dan or the Beatles in it, they tend to hear the Wilco or the Whitney or the Theo Katzman in it. Which, full circle, those bands are pulling from the same 60’s and 70’s bands as well. It all comes around eventually.
Rock music that draws heavily from the mature artists of the late mid-’70s and early ’80s seems to be coming back in a big way, why do you think that is?
I had to think long and hard about this question. I don’t want to come across as some bitter piss and moaner about music. Anyone can listen to or appreciate anything. But I think that Decade Pillaging comes and goes without much real merit. You either like the music or you don’t! I remember like, 3 years ago, all the twinkle daddies sworn down emo and all bought modular synths and then made 900 versions of the Stranger Things intro and then nothing came of it. Now I’m sure it’ll be some weed emo kids who start fingerpicking and calling it Fleetwood Mac emo. The songs will suffer if the influence doesn’t come from a genuine place. But you’ll notice that the artists who bring those tastes back in without being heavy-handed are the ones who actually listen to the music. Not only that, but the influence won’t go away when the trend ends. All music borrows from other music, there’s no avoiding that. But ransacking decades at a time doesn’t seem to work in the long run. The fad will end and the people who actually enjoy that particular decade will still be listening to the greats from that era, not an ingenuine duplicate. I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing some research and digging back at the endless discographies worth of amazing music there is. I suppose I just mean I hope that people use the influence to broaden their own range of playing, not to dictate what you think people will be into for a quick glance.
Do you miss playing in emo bands?
I feel pretty comfortable where I’m at these days. I definitely don’t miss the Twinkling phase. It was fun while it happened, I was like, 22 But the whole idea of, “this song has to be the saddest song EVER and then you have to fit as many notes as humanly possible into this I IV progression,” got very old very quickly. “You Shred! That SHREDS! RIFFS!” when it really had no musicality to it at all, myself included. Just notes for the sake of notes. And I’m digging on myself here too, I don’t think all emo is like that. But since joining Perspective, A Lovely Hand to Hold, which is still an emo band, we’ve definitely grown into exploring the music that we actually like. We’ve found that the more we like our own music, the worse we do on r/emo haha. I feel pretty good about making music I feel is closer to what I would listen to. I can still appreciate “emo” bands like Weatherbox or IIOI, but I don’t think they would consider themselves “emo” anymore. I tend to gravitate towards people who have very clear influences in other genres.
Do you feel like a lot of punk and emo acts owe an unacknowledged debt to the work of Sir Paul McCartney, and the other former Beatles? And if so, to what extent, and is it worth acknowledging?
I’ve learned to sort of keep my mouth shut about the Beatles lately haha. It’s become a very easy litmus test for me personally. If I read someone’s tweet or something that’s just a quick dunk on the Beatles, it’s a quick tell if I should seriously consider that person’s opinion on my music. Not only is it incredibly short-sighted to downplay that entire phenomenon as well as their solo careers, but I can guarantee that every one of that person’s favorite bands, those bands love the Beatles. If you like Elliott Smith, I got some news for ya haha. It’s worth acknowledging the ways that they blended influence from EVERYWHERE to form modern pop and rock music, but also to realize that they never withheld credit. You can read any interview with any of them, they’ll be the first to say who they were influenced by, which artists they loved, which of their songs are amalgamations of tunes from before them etc. If anything at all, the Beatles should be looked at as the most successful way of blending all the music you know and love into new creations. Which, like it or not, is what every single musician does every single day.
Why does Steely Dan rule?
Steely Dan rules because they very clearly don’t care. That’s the musical attitude everyone should take. You CAN write a song about a cocaine cowboy. You CAN write a song about a Basketball Player’s drug dealer. You CAN write a song about ANYTHING! Just make it sick. That’s all you gotta do. On the other side, however, they care SO MUCH. You should strive for perfection. You should see your idea to the absolute best it can be. You should owe it to that song about the cocaine cowboy to make sure it has the very best playing, the very best tempo, the right solo for the song. They’re my main inspiration for bringing in session players that I like. I’ve toyed with the idea of making this project a full-time band, but with making records, I would hate to limit myself to only a few players. I have a lot of people that I want to work with over the next few records.
If someone were interested in discovering some older and/or classic rock records, where would you suggest they start?
It depends on what you like! I love big band arrangements, so I’ve always been drawn to Soul bands like EW&F, or Tower of Power. Records like All in All or Oakland are amazing. I’ve also fallen into a hole recently of experimental stuff like The Mahavishnu Orchestra, or even just Weather Report or Brecker Brothers. I like the big-sounding stuff. Although one artist that slipped by me until recently was Emitt Rhodes. That one knocked me on my ass when I found him. I’m a very slow music appreciator. If I find a record, I’ll be on it for a few months, or at the very least, be giving that artist’s whole discography a once over. I guess if I could give one personal recommendation for that era, I would say start with Takin’ It To The Streets, then Livin On The Fault Line, Minute by Minute, and finish with One Step Closer. Really just hone in on the instrumentation choices, and most importantly the tempos. That’s pretty much what I did all year haha.
What is the legacy of these old rock songs in your opinion? Why are they worth digging back up?
I think it’s important to see where all your contemporaries come from! The artists that I like now, I love to know what got them going. I’m a big fan of someone like Matt Dorrien, but listening to him, I know that he must love Randy Newman. So why not give that a whirl? Randy Newman has an insane discography, and there’s so much there to love and might give you ideas for your own music! I love Theo Katzman, but you can hear all the soul and funk records that come through his work. Why not explore those avenues? It almost feels like that Wikipedia game where you click only the blue links to get from one person to another far removed. You can do that with any contemporary artist you favor, and I guarantee you will find some incredible records from the ’60s and ’70s. We all borrow from each other, I think it will always be important to hear who your favorite artist’s favorite artists are.
What’s next for this project in 2021?
Well, unfortunately, I’m a quick writer. While writing Casual Use, I also stockpiled about another 20 songs. It feels like that should be a good thing, but I have already tried 3 separate times to make headway into it, and it hasn’t felt right. I would like to relinquish some control of the backing instruments, but it’s a hard thing to give up. I think the next record, I would like to try tracking some of the backings live with some other players, as well as maybe rework the song structures and tempos. I went all out with CU trying to make it sound as large as possible, it might challenge me to pigeonhole myself into smaller arrangements and see if the songs still stand up on their own. I use records as practice, all of this should be making myself a better player, or what’s the point? I will always see records coming from this endeavor, but the idea of maybe playing these live is a hurdle I will have to figure out how to cross. I can see myself playing some of these solo acoustic, but it would be great to hear these full arrangements live. But to answer the question, next in 2021 is a new record.