In the late 90s, Jeromes Dream were at the forefront of the screamo scene alongside groups like Orchid, Pg.99 and Saetia. While the band only lasted four years, their pair of full-length albums and various splits would go on to become seminal records, influencing the next generation of bands as their legacy continued to grow.
In 2019, the band reconvened to release their reunion album, LP, and tour in support of it. Of course what came next was the global pandemic and subsequent shutdown of nearly everything. With their momentum suddenly halted, the band began to piece together another record, this time with guitarist Sean Lowery (notably of Loma Preita) in tow.
The result is The Gray In Between, out May 5 via Iodine Recordings. It’s an album informed by everything that was happening in the world, made in isolation and labored over perhaps more so than any in Jeromes Dream’s discography. Founding members Jeff Smith (bass/vocals) and Erik Ratensperger (drums) took some time to speak to us about the creation of it.
Going back to 2019, what was the original mindset for reuniting after 20 years?
Erik: Jeff and I had been in touch over the years since JD stopped playing in 2001. Sporadically over the years we kept in touch, and Nick was sort of elsewhere. We don’t know where he was; he was in a cabin in Vermont or something—by himself—that kind of vibe. But around 2017 I think I told Jeff, ‘Dude, we should try to contact Nick and have a group phone call and just revisit each other and get caught up.’ We started the band in 1997, so 2017 marked twenty years. We had this two-hour long conversation and in the midst of the conversation, I think it was Jeff who was kind of planting the seeds to maybe consider playing or getting in a room again.
After that phone call something compelled me to manifest that and make it happen. I don’t remember if we had started an Instagram at that point, or if I started it shortly thereafter, but I was kind of feeling this idea of getting in a room again and actually playing this music, so that’s what we did. One thing led to another and then before we knew it we were writing a record remotely and trying to almost achieve the impossible by doing that. Somehow we just kind of thrust ourselves to where we are now after just unrelenting work and chipping away at it, and here we are.
Jeff: I had been sort of playing the long game with getting us back together for a long time prior to that. I was always like, ‘We’ll maybe write a song,’ or revisit the old songs, and we would listen to old stuff in the car and be like, ‘Oh, you know what, this is pretty good.” So I had been planting those seeds for a long time, just hoping they would blossom. So that phone call sort of did it, but I had been thinking about it for probably, I don’t know, eight years or so prior to that.
Was there an idea of taking this beyond just a record and a tour, and making the band an active unit as it now is?
Jeff: That was the hope.
Erik: It kind of ended up being this law of inertia. Once we got started, I think it became really clear to us that this is such a big part of our lives, and it’s such an amazing platform to have for expression and creativity and community and all that. I think once we got in a groove with it, it dawned on us that this was something that we need to take as far as we can. So every month, every year since we started getting back together and playing music, it’s just been this—gradual or not—trajectory leading us to…I don’t know what it’s leading us to, but we’ve been on it since we decided to get back together. Forward moving ever since.
The pandemic and the shutdown happened shortly after you guys released the album and started touring. How was that trajectory affected?
Jeff: It really affected us. We were going to go play Roadburn; we were going to do another European tour in April of 2020. It’s funny; Erik was talking about maybe we shouldn’t go before things shut down. I was like, ‘No, we should go.’ We already bought plane tickets, and I waited until the last minute. Who really knew that what happened would happen? It was like running into a brick wall.
Erik: We had already played almost 50 shows at that point. I think our last run of dates were in Europe that October of 2019, so we were kind of in between tours. When there were these indicators that things were changing pretty rapidly, we realized—I mean, no one could do anything about it, but for our own scheduling, it was like Jeff said, running into a brick wall. We at that point were at such a rhythm of what we were doing and it was all kind of working, and then it stopped. I mean, it stopped for everyone, but for us having had this level of drive and focus to keep going on this path that we were on, and then only to have it be stopped uncontrollably, we were like, ‘Fuck.’ I think it took a while for everyone to comprehend what was happening in terms of the change of the world’s trajectory. Weird times.
Did it push you to start putting together what would become The Gray In Between?
Erik: Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. We were all hanging mindfully, like with masks. Jeff would come over to my apartment on occasion, but we’d sit in opposite corners of the room and order take-out. It was really fucking weird. Or we’d have a window open to get some—it was just so fucking crazy. Even going out felt like such a risky thing, so we weren’t even going to the rehearsal space until we were all able to get vaccinated. The idea of getting into a dirty-ass rehearsal space with a bunch of musicians, you just didn’t want to do that. But eventually we got vaccinated and started getting in the space, and we started going in regularly. That’s all we could do; there was no shows, so we practiced every week. We kind of got into this consistent schedule and before we knew it we just started writing a new record.
Jeff: The first thing we wrote is going to come out after the record comes out.
Erik: We wrote a song that’s ending up on a different release. We had recorded it as a singular thing. Was that a year from when we recorded the actual record?
Jeff: Yeah, it was a year old when we recorded it. It’s been almost 2 years. That song will be 2 years old when it comes out.
Erik: We’re talking about a song that comes out in July, I believe. Our friend Jeremy Bolm from Touché Amoré, he’s putting out a comp and we were lucky enough to be invited to be on it, so we basically wrote this song. And it was cool because it kind of gave us a purpose; it gave us a project. We wrote this song, we went in the studio with our friend Jack Shirley and, again it was weird because we were all wearing masks. I was setting up my drums in the studio with a mask on and it was just so strange, but we did it, and then eventually we felt like were kind of getting back to it, I guess.
Jeff: I think that song helped us realize there’s a lot here; the energy is here. So we just started to build on that. When we went in with Jack for that session we demoed another song that’s going to be on the record, so I guess that was technically the first song we wrote for this record, but we knew we had something there. It started to become really fun to go deeper and explore what we were working with.
Erik: And it’s worth noting that this is the first time we recorded with our friend Sean Leary, who’s also in Loma Prieta…
Jeff: And a million other bands [laughs]
Erik: Yeah. What happened was JD met Loma Prieta on our first tour back and we became best friends. But to fast forward to this iteration of JD, we all live in the Bay Area—Jeff and I are in SF, Sean is outside of SF—and we started playing together.
Jeff: We started playing with Sean prior to the shutdown. He was going to play second guitar, so we started familiarizing ourselves with him. We had two or three practices before everything shut down, so that’s technically when we started playing with him. I don’t know when it was when we started working again, but it was right after we all got vaccinated.
Erik: The weird thing is that we’ve been playing as a three-piece with Sean almost longer than we were active pre-pandemic with the other guys. Just reflecting on this timeline, it’s a bit of a blur.
Jeff: It’s weird; it’s like a life-pause.
Does Sean bring something into the band that helped set the tone for what becomes this album?
Erik: Absolutely. I mean Sean is his own creative force. He just has something that’s uniquely his and it comes out through his playing, and him as a person, him as a musician and a friend, the chemistry that is happening. It’s something that you can’t really predict or understand until you’re actually doing it, and when the three of us started playing together there was just this kind of unspoken language and communication we quickly established through just playing. It was creating a sound, and not only a sound, but an energy and a frequency between the three of us. When you play with other people you can’t just tell what the combination is going to create, and with Sean and us coming together it’s very much Jerome’s Dream, but it’s this new energy that Sean is bringing to the table that has made the band feel new again.
So it’s almost like this very distinctive new iteration; it almost feels like a new band in a way. The principles and the philosophies behind what drives the band, it’s all there, and the cool thing with Sean is that he just naturally gets it and understands what its purpose is, what its function is, and he just fits right in. It was a seamless integration from day one. We kind of knew that that was going to happen, but we didn’t realize or know exactly what that was actually going to yield in terms of what we made together, these songs.
Jeff: He brings a sense of urgency that feels really fresh and drives Erik and I both to have that urgency as well. We always had it, but it’s like he’s capturing it and making it more grand, I guess. There’s also this, not to sound oxymoronic, but tender brutality to his playing. There’s a lot of articulation in what he’s doing. I’ll just look at him like, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ in the best way possible. Like, ‘How is he doing this, this is crazy.’ But it’s a lot of fun to mirror him when I am, and we really bounce off each other in a really great way.
Is it difficult to tap back into writing for Jerome’s Dream after having been away from it for so long? Is there a certain mindset now, knowing that the band’s legacy grew over the years of inactivity?
Erik: I think it can be hard at times to tap into this territory. I think what I learned from our first wave of touring before the pandemic was I actually personally struggled with the relationship between myself and the musical output. Psychologically and emotionally, I don’t think I have a good balance. I think I almost adopted the headspace too much and I didn’t know how to create parameters for it. I remember coming off our last tour in October 2019 and I was just kind of wrecked. I felt kind of awful; it was really weird.
But to fast forward to where we’re at now with our approach to music, our approach to creating, our approach to embodying this headspace that Jerome’s Dream is at the epicenter of, I think with time and life experience and where we’re at in our lives, the relationship absolutely changes. But I think the one thing that remains constant is our need to express ourselves, our need for a platform to allow us to be creative and free. And I think just by nature and where we’re coming from and how we came up playing this music, there’s a lot of built in constants in terms of the energy and the intention and the reasons why we’re doing this, but I think over time they definitely change, of course. I mean we’ve lived half a lifetime since we stared the band. You think about this band when we were like 18 years old, or 19 years old, something like that, and now we’re in our—well some of us our in our early forties.
Jeff: I’m in my thirties [laughs].
Erik: Yeah, right. We’re in our forties, but we still find this music to be essential to our existence as people who need to create. We have to do this otherwise the equilibrium is going to get fucked up. I feel like we have to do this at some capacity one way or the other.
Jeff: My wife is like, ‘You’re so much nicer and happier when you have stuff going.’ I absolutely need it. Going back to the pandemic, having it stop was like—it was the thing that my life was missing.
Talking about legacy, there were hardly any people into this kind of music when we were making it. We’d go around to these shows and be happy if 50 people were there, and so I sort of knew that it would be something a little bit bigger when we came back, but I don’t approach it that way. It doesn’t seem like a relic it to me; it’s just what my life is. It’s just part of who I am. It comes along with me everywhere I go, it’s just always in the back of my mind that this is thing that I need to survive and feel whole.
The Gray In Between feels almost like it has the best characteristics from all of your releases, blending them together while also bringing in new ideas.
Erik: I don’t think that’s the intention, to pull from elements of different points and whatever we’ve made in the past. I think it’s just a natural continuation; it’s a thing that we’re not thinking about. How we play is kind of what goes to tape. Jeff is playing bass; you can almost tell that it’s Jeff playing bass. Or if it’s a drumming thing that’s almost distinctive to how I play, maybe you can pick up on that. Or in this case with Sean, he has this weird maniac ability to put his own stamp on the music but somehow seamlessly integrate into the sound that is JD.
It’s a combination of just who we are and how we play and what we write and make with this added element of Sean coming into the mix. It’s almost like he’s an accentuator and amplifier of what is already there, and he has just made it become this other thing because of his involvement. I can’t say it’s a thing where we wrote these songs and it’s like, ‘Yeah, some of this is like Presents, or some of it is pulling from the 10-inch.’ It’s not like that at all, it’s more so what’s coming out at the moment.
So, when we wrote this record it was during the pandemic and we wrote it behind closed doors. We never played shows, we never tried a song live on stage, we just wrote it in this shitty rehearsal space that we share with a million other bands. And we labored over these songs, and we wrote and refined and wrote again and refined some more, and wrote another and then wrote another. Before we knew it we found ourselves creating a new sonic landscape, a new feeling and a new world around the band. That is what was really exciting to me, just the new feeling that we were getting while making these songs together.
So to kind of sum it up, it’s like, this record—The Gray In Between—it’s a combination of multiple things, but really it’s such a marker of when we made it and how made it together as this iteration of the band. It’s a very distinctly a reflection of the moment we made it and how we made it and who we made it with, meaning Sean for the first time getting into the mix. We recorded this record again with our friend Jack Shirley who has been such an integral part of the process. We almost jokingly call him our fifth member just because he’s over the bridge in Oakland and he’s always ready to go. Whenever we get into the studio with him there’s this familiarity that just makes it really comfortable and I think that also adds to the mix.
Jeff: Comparing it to LP, LP wasn’t fun. There was no fun there. We weren’t in the same place, we couldn’t get together, it was always super scheduled and it never felt relaxed. This was sort of like an escape from the horrors of the world. Every day getting all this shitty news and watching society just sort of rapidly decline, and civility and people and behavior and anxiety, and this shit just happening. We would go into this space and it just felt safe and it felt like we were doing something that mattered, and it just felt good and it was fun. I felt like I could sort of relax in there, even on the days where it was a slog trying to get through some of the stuff. We’d all be looking at each other like, ‘Fuck you,’ but inside I was like, ‘There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than this.’
Not saying that LP was a drag, it always felt like a challenge and this was just like, ‘Let’s just go, we’re going at our own pace, there’s no timeline.’ It never felt like we were pulling from anything else, it was just where we were in our lived and in our creative approach.
Erik: We made this record in isolation, but we were more connected in the process than we have been in a long time.
Was the lyrical content informed by everything happening at that time?
Jeff: Without a doubt. I mean, it’s been a challenging couple years just trying to adapt to being on top of my family and my family being on top of me, being home with a little kid and trying to figure that out. I mentioned the word anxiety, and I struggle with that like crazy, so there’s a lot of that in there. I just let out a lot of the darkness that has been swirling around for the last few years. It comes through.
Your vocal delivery has shifted back to the screams as opposed to what you did for LP. I know you had mentioned at the time you weren’t able to tap into that approach, how were you able to get back to it for The Gray In Between?
Jeff: Like I said earlier, with LP we never really had the time to find what it needed to be. We had a timeline and we had a very limited amount of time together to make it happen so I didn’t really get to rehearse vocals. We had played no shows, so I didn’t really know what to do until a couple years later. When we started rehearsing for touring I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to try this,’ and it was right, and everybody was like, ‘This is what we needed to do. It feels better.’ If you saw us in 2019 or you watched any YouTube videos, I’m moving back towards that place, and then we released [‘Keep Those Bristles Clean and Closed”] with screaming vocals. I actually re-recorded those after we got back from tour because I was like, ‘Well, this is where we’re actually at.’
I went in, I guess during the pandemic, and I re-recorded almost all of the vocals for LP because we were like, ‘Well, maybe we’ll just re-release it the way that it should be.’ We’re still sitting on those songs, but The Gray In Between started happening and I was like, ‘You know what, let’s put that in a box and leave it for later.’
But it just felt natural to go back to it. If you go back farther, you’re looking at Presents. That was just sort of a headspace I was in where I just felt like doing something different, and I came back and I approached it that way. I’m not really happy with how the vocals are on LP, so that’s why I went, ‘I’m just going to go back and redo these.’ So, basically what you’re hearing now is what I was doing after we started touring in 2019.
Erik: Yeah, you almost immediately started screaming. Out the gates when we started touring you were already screaming and that’s where we’re at now.
Jeff: Who knows if it’ll change again. It’s always fun to change things up.
So what is the future of the band at this point?
Erik: We’ll be touring a lot into the year. A US tour with Elizabeth Colour Wheel starting in May, we’re playing a few festivals, we’re just going to be playing a lot. We’ll be going to Europe later in the summer. So just a lot of touring plans. Whatever surrounds that.
Once you get into touring mode, that’s just sort of what it is. You live on the road and, it’s funny, your world suddenly becomes just that—roadside motels and Taco Bell and dirty-ass clubs, and a lot of fun. A lot of hardwork, but once you’re in that mode it’s like a machine, you hit tour with an intention and you just bulldoze away. So that’s the plan.
We are in rehearsal now. We’re just rehearsing up until we start playing live. The first show back will be ZBR Fest in the beginning of May in Chicago. That’ll be the kick off; that’ll be the first official reveal of a lot of these new songs. We’ll have the vinyl of the record by then, because the record comes out May 5, the day before we play. It’s going to be a very busy but fruitful latter half of the year.
Jeff: It’s weird to have the whole year planned. It’s nice, but you’re like, ‘Man, I’m going to be doing this in October, I’m going to be doing this in December.’ I guess it’s like when people plan vacations and stuff.
Erik: This is like a vacation.
Jeff: It kind of is. It’s work but it’s welcomed work. We’re just pedal to the metal, we’re not stopping here, there’s a lot left to do.
Erik: We’re nowhere near finished. I feel like this is the beginning of whatever’s ahead. But this is like—I was going to say a new lease on life, but it’s not. It’s more a new chapter. It’s a new chapter.
Photo courtesy of Sara Sanger.