Andrew Smith throws Jungle Green’s homemade songs at a bigger wall—will they stick? | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Andrew Smith throws Jungle Green’s homemade songs at a bigger wall—will they stick? 

The Chicago singer-songwriter has promoted his music mostly by sending it to people who reply to flyers he’s taped to lampposts. Fortunately he’s also made some well-connected fans.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Andrew Green in the apartment of his Jungle Green bandmate Mattie McCall, which the group uses as a practice space - KRISTIN DEITRICH
  • Andrew Green in the apartment of his Jungle Green bandmate Mattie McCall, which the group uses as a practice space
  • Kristin Deitrich

This past January, local singer-songwriter Andrew Smith began taping flyers to lampposts around Chicago. He started in Edgewater and worked his way south to Pilsen, going as far west as Cragin. Smith eventually put up about 300 of them.

"My name is Andrew and I make music under the name Jungle Green," the flyers read, in Smith's orderly handwriting. "I record music at home with my piano and Panasonic tape recorder. I have made 15 albums. My favorite songwriters are Brian Wilson and Del Shannon." He included his personal Yahoo e-mail address, encouraging people to reach out so he could send them his music. The only image was a photo of Smith toward the bottom, the right half of his face covered by piano keys and the left half blacked out—he says it's Jungle Green's logo.

That doctored photo also appears on Bandcamp as the artwork for A Letter for Monica, a collection of lo-fi, outre pop songs that Smith had uploaded in January 2017. Throughout the album he toys with the sentimental directness of doo-wop, often hammering out a simple piano melody while gently singing about love. Some songs are just his earnest, timid vocals, quiet enough that you can hear the background hiss of the cassette four-track he used to record them. His tunes can seem familiar on first listen, maybe because they're so straightforwardly catchy, and his wobbly intonation and unsteady piano playing add a slightly off-center feel. He's not an outsider artist, but he sometimes sounds like one. His music comes off like the work of someone who either can't or won't structure a song conventionally.

The a cappella number "Rock and Roll Star" briefly sounds like a love song, with Smith singing about wanting to fall for a blue-eyed, brown-haired woman who likes to go on walks at 3 AM. But then it takes a sudden self-referential left turn: "Oh I want people to hear my songs," Smith sings. "I think some of them would really like them / I want to play lots of shows, all around Chicago / If only the booking guys would answer my calls."

Smith is sincere in his frustrations about his musical career, but he also has a straight-faced, self-deprecating sense of humor—and his decision to post flyers about himself all over town only makes sense if you consider both. "I have a tough time getting gigs—I rarely ever get gigs unless I know someone who's playing a show and they'll ask me to  be an opener," he says. "No record labels really want to touch my stuff, it seems. Maybe that'll change, but basically I'm not getting anywhere with what I want to do, so I thought I might as well take it to the streets."

Smith was also inspired by Chicago-born experimental musician Willis Earl Beal, who got his first bump of fame in 2010 after posting similar flyers of his own: while living in Albuquerque he'd advertised for a girlfriend, and after returning to Chicago he'd made others looking for "friends & stuff," adding "I am not a Weasel" to reassure the skeptical. "I really liked the act of personally writing to people and giving them my music myself rather than them going to a link," Smith says.

One of Smith’s flyers, spotted on Milwaukee near Diversey on March 16, 2018 - LEOR GALIL
  • One of Smith’s flyers, spotted on Milwaukee near Diversey on March 16, 2018
  • Leor Galil

Smith has been recording as Jungle Green for about five years, and though he hasn't made the progress he'd hoped for, that period hasn't just been one long dry spell. Vancouver indie Kingfisher Bluez, whose catalog includes Xiu Xiu, Laura Veirs, and Allison Crutchfield, released a Jungle Green seven-inch in 2013, after Smith sent the label an e-mail, encouraged by its earlier Dirty Beaches single. That same year he sent a Jungle Green EP to Foxygen multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado via Facebook message, and Rado was so impressed that he invited Smith to open a couple Foxygen shows.

Over the past three years, Smith has also appeared on both solo albums by cellist and composer Paul de Jong, cofounder of abstract pop group the Books (one of Smith's favorite bands). And last fall he worked with Rado at his Los Angeles studio to record an as-yet-unreleased album with Jungle Green's five-piece live band, formerly nicknamed the Blood Sisters. Rado has become a hot producer in the indie-rock world, with clients including Whitney, Father John Misty, the Lemon Twigs, and Cut Worms.

That's not to imply that collaborating with moderately famous people has done anything for Smith's own profile. He's posted 16 Jungle Green releases on Bandcamp, and only one has broken the double-digit sales barrier. Bandcamp shows that ten people have paid to download 2016's "name your price" album Eight Doo-Wop Gems—marginally more impressive than ten sales of an ordinary album, since those people could've taken it for free. "I get a few downloads every now and then," Smith says, "but I definitely don't make any money."

Jungle Green has only been on a few tours, and the longest ran from May through early July in 2017. Smith booked it himself, headlining the shows with two members of his band, and it was an unambiguous failure. "We were really naive—you know, 'We should do a tour, and once we do that, everyone's gonna know who we are,'" he says. "Of course no one came to any of the shows, and it was for a month and a half."

Bizarrely, taping up flyers has done more for Smith's fortunes than touring. In the first few weeks of his lamppost campaign, he says he got 50 e-mails. Matthew Sage, who records as M. Sage and runs the Patient Sounds label, spotted a flyer near his house. "I immediately was like, 'I don't know who this is, but I have to hear his music,'" Sage says. He e-mailed Smith and dug his songs enough that he asked to put out a Jungle Green cassette. "Patient Sounds' aesthetic is doing the most you can artistically with the least amount of stuff—there's something ramshackle about a lot of it, and this screamed that to me," he says. "If you're a listener who doesn't necessarily care about fidelity but you're there for earnest expression . . . It sunk its teeth into me."

Since this winter, Smith has also gone from barely ever playing out to occasionally playing out. That doesn't have to do with the flyers, but rather with an April gig opening for Paul de Jong at the Empty Bottle. Jungle Green returned to the venue in July to open for Michael Rault, and it seems like the Empty Bottle Presents team has developed a soft spot for Smith—Jungle Green is also booked at this weekend's Logan Square Food Truck Social, alongside indie-famous headliners Prefuse 73, the Men, and Palm.

EBP talent buyer Brent Heyl says Smith first e-mailed about playing the Bottle shortly after he moved to Chicago in 2014. When Heyl first heard Jungle Green, he thought it sounded like "some kind of weird mix between John Maus, Daniel Johnston, and Gary Wilson." While booking the Food Truck Social, which EBP seems to be patterning after its better-established West Fest, Heyl decided Jungle Green would be a good fit for Saturday afternoon. "I wanted something a little bit different," he says. "Also I wanted to see him on there." But because Smith's outsider-inspired music sounds like it could only have evolved in near isolation, it's sure to change as he finds favor with insiders such as EBP.


Jungle Green
Part of the Logan Square Food Truck Social. Jungle Green plays Sat 8/25, 1:30 PM, Main Stage, Humboldt between Armitage and the 606 trail, logansquarefoodtrucksocial.com, $5 suggested donation, all-ages.


Smith, 26, grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He started drumming at age 12, and played in youth orchestras and jazz bands throughout grade school. He also briefly studied music at University of Massachusetts Amherst. "I don't really listen to jazz music or classical, and I think I was just kind of doing it because my parents wanted me to," he says. "I always really liked the Beach Boys and Todd Rundgren, and would rather be doing stuff like that, so I dropped out of school."

Smith wanted to write songs on his own terms, so he sought out a private tutor through the Berkshire Music School. He was already a fan of the Books, and eventually he found a contact for Paul de Jong, who lived ten minutes outside Pittsfield.

In December 2011 Smith asked de Jong to teach him composition. "He would come by and show what he was working on," says de Jong. "I helped him as far as I could. . . . He's kind of a natural." Smith would drive to de Jong's place every few weeks for a two- or three-hour session. At the time he worked at a pizza place called Baba Louie's, so the cash he had was almost all from tips. "He'd pay me mostly in singles," de Jong says.

At one point Smith tried to get a job as a drum instructor at the Berkshire Music School, but before the interview he ate what he describes as a "melty" peanut butter sandwich. "I thought it went pretty well, but the woman who was interviewing me was looking at me a little strange," he says. "I was driving home, looked in the mirror, and I realized I had peanut butter all over my face."

The current members of Jungle Green, clockwise from the top of the pile: Mattie McCall, Adam Miller, Adam Obermeier, Alex Heaney, Emma Collins, and Andrew Smith - KRISTIN DEITRICH
  • The current members of Jungle Green, clockwise from the top of the pile: Mattie McCall, Adam Miller, Adam Obermeier, Alex Heaney, Emma Collins, and Andrew Smith
  • Kristin Deitrich

Smith was confident enough on the drums to feel qualified to teach them, but if anything his proficiency there made him feel less sure of himself on other instruments. He was still a relative newcomer to the piano during his lessons with de Jong. "I didn't know any chords and had never worked with melody before," he says. "I was kind of looking to people, honestly, like outsider musicians, who didn't have a whole lot of talent either but made really great music." He mentions being inspired by Wild Man Fischer, an LA street performer discovered by Frank Zappa in 1967, and by late-2000s mutant indie act Dirty Beaches, who deliberately defied convention with a fried doo-wop sound.

Smith also corresponded with and sometimes got free merch from the likes of prolific home-recording savant R. Stevie Moore, lo-fi pop dirtbag Joey Pizza Slice, and public-access host Scott Lewis of the 80s NYC program The Scott and Gary Show. After moving to Chicago to finish his BA at Columbia College, he made an audio documentary about local cult musician and visual artist Wesley Willis for a class. He even compares his Web-only label, Atlantic City Melodies (through which he's released every Jungle Green recording but the Kingfisher Bluez single), to Corwood Industries, which releases only the unsettling work of enigmatic Houston musician Jandek.

Though Smith's fascination with outsider musicians developed in part because he was insecure about his skill, de Jong found him an agile student. "He already had the ingredients, but he really grew into his style pretty quick—it's remarkable what he can do with a microphone and a four-track recorder," de Jong says. "He's a born entertainer. He's kind of an old, Jewish borscht-belt entertainer in the body of a smarter, musical millennial."

De Jong's debut solo album, 2015's If, includes vocals from Smith (credited as Jungle Green) on "This Is Who I Am." Smith also appears on three songs on its follow-up, April's You Fucken Sucker. "I ask people to contribute who are simply in my community, or who I've gotten to know," de Jong says. "I don't really work with musicians very much—I just work with people I know who have tremendous talent and whose qualities I've gotten to appreciate."

De Jong also requested Jungle Green as an opener for his Empty Bottle show in April—Smith's third gig there since 2014. Venue manager Mike Gebel was already familiar with Smith's music, and had noticed one of his flyers down the street from the Bottle. "I thought it was really charming, but also wished he would've included the show that he was playing down the street," Gebel says. "He was like, 'Yeah, I don't know how to do this.'"

Smith may not have much of a feel for the music industry, but fortunately he has several supporters who do. His association with Jonathan Rado has brought most of them into his orbit: Smith met Spencer Tweedy, for instance, when Tweedy's band the Blisters opened for Foxygen at Lincoln Hall in late 2014.

Andrew Smith (bottom left) and Jungle Green open for Rubber Band Gun at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn on March 15, 2018. - RIAS REED
  • Andrew Smith (bottom left) and Jungle Green open for Rubber Band Gun at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn on March 15, 2018.
  • Rias Reed

"What Andrew makes speaks to me," Tweedy says. "I think all those influences, like doo-wop and soul music, as they're filtered by him—it's awesome and different." Tweedy's relationship to Smith is more that of a fan than a friend, but their paths continue to cross: in March, Jungle Green opened five east-coast dates for Foxygen-affiliated project Rubber Band Gun, which had Tweedy on drums.

Tweedy says his favorite Jungle Green album is the unreleased one that Rado produced. Its lush, tranquil sound and honeyed melodies connect it to other current indie updates of 70s soft rock, though Smith's charmingly off-center personality and hushed singing make Jungle Green distinct. "He's sweeter than any other person in the entire universe," Tweedy says of Smith. "I think I would love the record even if I didn't know him, but knowing him adds an even deeper appreciation."

The Rado album is Smith's only recording with a full band, and he credits those five musicians—all friends via his time at Columbia College—with its more refined and sophisticated sound. "I basically bring them the songs—the piano versions," he says. "They write their parts themselves." Smith still doesn't think much of his own talent, and continues to record at home with the same Yamaha PSR-350 keyboard he's used for Jungle Green's entire history—a hand-me-down from his sister. "I'm not very skilled, so I don't really have the ability to do too much more," he says.

Smith still intends to release something on cassette through Patient Sounds, but whatever it is, it probably won't be the Rado album—a representative for High Road Touring, which also books Rado, is shopping that to bigger indie labels. The Patient Sounds project is on the back burner for now, because Smith's concert calendar is getting more crowded than it's ever been (and Sage doesn't want to rush him). The Lemon Twigs, another High Road client, recently asked Jungle Green to open for them on their fall tour.

Strangers who've found Smith's flyers are still e-mailing him—though it's been months since he posted any, somehow at least a few haven't come down. And he's still uploading new home-recorded solo albums to Jungle Green's Bandcamp page. The newest, June's Live From Tony's Italian Pizza Temple, ends with "A Message of Hope," over whose wistful melody Smith programmed Siri to read a short script. "It is important to not become discouraged when things don't go our way," Siri says. "Do what makes you happy. Do what's best for yourself, and don't be afraid to make other people unhappy if it means that you will be happier in the long run."  v

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment