The day before their first tour together in more than a decade, all five members of Jump Little Children agree: It’s like deja vu, only stranger.
Before the band broke up in 2005, they had played together constantly — at one point more than 200 shows a year — from the time they graduated college until their early 30s. They knew each other and their music practically better than anything else in the world. They became a family, and their songs were like a shared language.
After 15 years, they decided it was time for something else. They played a farewell show at the Dock Street Theatre, and that was that.
Ten years have gone by. Three of them moved away. Everybody got different jobs and started families.
Meanwhile, the first iPhone was released, and Twitter, Instagram, selfies, Netflix and the Kardashians became the garden-variety of our mainstream culture.
And now, here they are. Back together in Charleston at Jay Clifford’s studio on Radcliffe Street, hanging out on couches like it was the living room of some downtown rental they used to share so many years ago.
Jay, the lead singer, still lives in Charleston. He started a recording studio called Hello Telescope when the band broke up. He’s produced work for singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons, Heather Nova, and some locals, including Atlas Road Crew and the Tarlatans (now going by the name Beach Tiger).
The place isn’t so much a professional-looking studio as it is a cozy workspace. It’s fashioned out of an old Charleston home with high ceilings, creaky hardwood floors and large windows rimmed with stained glass.
In the front room, Jay is sitting next to Ward Williams, the cellist and guitarist. He’s lived in New York since the band broke up, which hasn’t diluted his Southern accent. It’s still the strongest in the group.
Evan Bivens, the drummer, and Jonathan Gray, the bassist, are here, too. The only one missing is Matt, Evan’s brother and the band’s goofy multi-instrumentalist.
As if preparing for their first tour in 10 years wasn’t stressful enough, Matt had a freak accident and has been in the hospital for three days.
Matt and Evan got in town from Chicago the first week of December to start rehearsing with the band. They’ve been on a strict schedule since, working full eight-hour days with only one weekend off.
A couple of days before, Matt went to Doctor’s Care in Mount Pleasant after feeling sharp pains in his lower back. He explains that he had just bought a new, heavy accordion to play on the Jump Little Children tour, and that maybe he had just overextended himself.
The physician immediately sent him to the emergency room. Turns out, he had a collapsed lung.
Everybody in the band has been on edge since then. Early on, the doctors said he would be OK, but today is Tuesday. They’re playing their first show in Atlanta on Wednesday night and the following night, then it’s straight to Nashville, Columbia, Charlotte and back home to Charleston for four concerts; two at the Dock Street Theatre on Dec. 28-29, and a final two at the Music Farm on Dec. 30-31.
All the shows have been sold out for months, and if Matt isn’t healing quickly, they’ll have to call the whole thing off.
“This is a band that, without all five (of us), it just doesn’t make sense. If Matt wasn’t able to do the tour ... we would postpone the tour until he was able to,” Jay says.
By the afternoon, Matt is out of the hospital and on his way to the Music Farm for their final rehearsal. The next day, as they’re getting ready to board the tour bus to Atlanta, he says he’s tired, but feeling normal again. He’s still not sure what caused the whole thing, even his doctors couldn’t fully explain it.
He’s just happy to be able to go out and play with the band again.
“I’ve been working all year towards this. This week is so special and not just for us, but there are thousands of people that have been looking forward to this almost as much as we have,” he says.
His and Evan’s mother is an actress, so they grew up with the understanding, “The show must go on.”
While Matt may be the only band member with battle wounds to prove it, everybody has been working like crazy to get the music down perfectly.
They want to perform it accurately, and they also want their songs to pack the same emotional punch that captivated their fans so many years ago. And there’s another thing.
“We made a point on day one at rehearsal that we didn’t want to be the Jump Little Children cover band,” Evan says. “I have had 10 years of experiences as a musician since. And I actually didn’t want to settle back into the muscle memory of all these tunes ... I want to bring who I am now to this music as opposed to just kind of reverting back to who I was.”
“We wanted to be true to what the songs were, and be true to who we are now. So, hopefully, it will both be nostalgic and entertaining at the same time.”
Nothing about the task is easy.
There’s a saying in country music, that all you need is four chords and the truth, meaning, a good song doesn’t necessarily need to be complex or polished. Jay says it’s become clear to them recently that Jump Little Children never subscribed to that mentality.
“It was more like, 12 chords and the truth,” he says.
Everybody laughs and agrees.
“It really is like 12 chords and a mystery,” Evan says. “But the funny thing is, one thing we’ve been saying, is that we didn’t think of it as being hard when we were playing it (back then) but ... this music is not easy to play. I’ve been really like, ‘How did I do this 10 years ago? I didn’t know enough about music to do all this.’”
All the members except for Jonathan studied classical music at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where the seeds of Jump Little Children were planted.
They tried living and performing in Boston for a while after college, but settled in Charleston by the mid-1990s. Their first gig in town was busking on Market Street, which is when Jonathan came into the picture.
“When I first saw you guys, I was like, I want that,” he says. “It was kind of a love-at-first-sight moment ... or whatever you call it.”
They had an Irish folk sound at first, with their cello, accordion and stand-up bass arrangements. Their music started to lean into alternative rock, and it took off quickly with Charleston’s younger audience.
It was perhaps their classical, sophisticated approach to rock music that resonated so well in Charleston, a city known for Spoleto Festival USA as well as the now-defunct WaveFest, an annual alt-rock extravaganza held by the local radio station 96 Wave.
Mark Bryan, the Hootie & the Blowfish guitarist, remembers seeing Jump Little Children play for the first time on the side of Market Street almost 20 years ago. It was before he moved to Charleston, when his band was still based in Columbia.
“I remember walking around the city already thinking this place is magical, and then I hear this amazing street band with all these instruments and I was just blown away by them,” Bryan says.
“A year later, I was in the Music Farm to see them. I knew I was going to see Jump Little Children, but I didn’t realize it was the same guys I had seen on the street a year before. It was amazing ... and I knew from that moment how special they were.”
Before he knew it, Jump Little Children was touring with Hootie & the Blowfish, which helped boost them into a regional spotlight.
While the eclectic band never reached nationwide fame like Hootie, Bryan says they had a lasting influence on Charleston’s music scene.
“I think they were ground-breakers in Charleston. They let you know that you could take chances in Charleston and define your own sound,” he says. “It was almost a string or vocal arrangement for every song, in a rock band. ... There’s no other band I can think of that does that.”
Jump Little Children eventually followed Hootie & the Blowfish’s lead, and took smaller Charleston bands out on the road with them.
Owen Beverly is one example, who will be debuting his new project called Indianola as an opening act for Jump Little Children’s reunion shows. Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope produced his first record, which is set for release sometime in 2016.
Beverly, who had been on the road several times with Jump Little Children in their earlier days, says the band was a big reason he started making music in Charleston in 2001.
“When I started to check out the local music scene, very quickly Jump became one of my favorite bands, and more importantly, Jay Clifford became a really important influence for me,” Beverly said.
Steven Fiore, a singer-songwriter from Charleston who now lives in Chapel Hill, said the same thing.
“I grew up watching this local band on the rise, and I would hear them on the radio, and as a teenager I loved their music,” he says. “The guys all separately became a huge part of why I succeeded the way I did later on in life.”
He opened shows for Jay and Ward on their solo tours after the band broke up.
“A lot of the professional relationships that I still have today were based on those stepping stones early on,” he says.
In 2005, all the band members were ready to give other projects a try. Jonathan had just had his first child, and Jay’s wife was pregnant. Ward wanted to move to New York. Evan and Matt wanted to try their hand at theater.
They all agreed it made sense to break up.
After their final show at the Dock Street Theater wrapped up, they sat back stage together and decided they wanted to come back to the same venue in 10 years for a reunion.
Actually following through with it has exceeded all of their expectations.
“I feel like, even though we haven’t played a show yet, I’ve gotten a lot of what I hoped to get out of this, just rehearsing with these guys. And I think the other half is just reconnecting with the fans,” Ward says.
Evan says it’s been profound to not only play with the band again but to experience their reunion in Charleston.
“Charleston has basically been my home as much as North Carolina. Coming back and seeing how much it’s the same and seeing how much it’s changed has really mirrored my experience with Jump: how much is exactly the same, how it’s right there where we left off 10 years ago, and then also how much is different.”
Since they’re all so happy that Jump Little Children is back together, will this nine-day reunion tour spark a lasting reunion?
“Sure, there’s a chance,” Ward says.
Evan is a little more pragmatic.
“We all still have stuff to keep doing. Jay’s got music to write and record, Ward’s got bands and teaching and stuff to do in New York; Matt and I have projects to work on,” he says. “I guess we could have added shows, but let’s ... stop it here and keep the door open for whatever happens next.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail