“No One’s Really Talking About Love Anymore, You Know?”: An Interview with The Jack Moves

Peter Holsin speaks with Jack Moves about R&B boot camp, Newark architecture, and the true definition of gangster.
By    December 2, 2015


Too many bands these days have no discipline. They’re shaggy, poorly rehearsed, overly chilled out on the weed. Not The Jack Moves, though. This Newark soul outfit—which consists of core members Zee Desmondes and Teddy Powell—spent years putting together their debut album. Released last month on Wax Poetics, the eponymously-titled effort is a dip back into the lushly-arranged quiet storm soul of East Coast bands like The Delfonics and The Moments. Over 13 tracks, flutes flutter, vibraphones glimmer and orchestral strings shiver. Powell lays down a solid groove over horns and wah-wah guitar, and Desmondes sounds almost like an Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, with his swoon-worthy lyrics and pitch-perfect countertenor melodies.

The album is so remarkably tight and beautiful that you might be surprised to learn that these two started off as bedroom beat-makers. They don’t have classical training or extensive production experience. In some circles, Powell might be better known as a skateboarder, having once ridden for the Fast Times skate team. The Jack Moves came about when the two band members immersed themselves in the vintage records they were sampling. Eager to learn the “secret recipe” behind so many Philly, Jersey and New York records, they reached out to two soul/R&B veterans, George Kerr and Paul Kyser, who put the two charges through a Mickey Goldmill-like R&B training regimen.

You might notice that The Jack Moves aren’t putting up a front. If some musicians prefer warped psychedelia or brawny jamming —anything that will make you look cooler/weirder/etc. compared to all the rest—these two are unabashed romantics. Their tunes are sentimental, but in a special way. Desmondes and Powell have truly gone above and beyond to bare their  hearts for the world, and so I called them up and get the story behind how the record came together. —Peter Holslin

How did you guys go about making your new album?

Zee:  Our first thing that we recorded, [we did it] in my mom’s garage, on the little digi rig in there. And then we found this really messed up loft space in Newark. I don’t know if you know much about Newark, but Newark’s pretty messed up. All the buildings downtown are abandoned. We moved into this one that was filled with garbage. We cleaned it out, and we put in this little tape machine. We just started working on stuff. But we were hitting a brick wall because all of the stuff we were into—like, The Delfonics, Stylistics, all that stuff is kind of a mystery…how they did all that. How they did the strings and horns. The way they would layer the background harmonies—all that stuff. It’s like it was a lost recipe, as far as I was concerned. So we tracked down these older soul producers and writers from the ’60s and ‘70s. George and Paul. We were learning with them for a while, working on some of their songs. Going to master class with the real veterans.

What were those guys doing when you tracked them down?

Teddy: [Laughs] They were just chilling. [George is] collecting his money out of his mailbox. His publishing, his royalties. He’s sharp, he’s in shape. Paul was maybe a little more active in the music than George was. Paul still had a studio in his basement. Producing gospel stuff. George was retired and chilling. 

Zee: George is a beast, man. He’d be up in the studio ’til 3 in the morning, full blast. Not even an ounce of fatigue. 

Teddy: I can only imagine when he was, like, 30.

What were some of the lessons they taught you?

Zee: I mean, like, George, for example, [he’s a] singer, first off. He was in this group called The Serenaders in the ’50s, and then he replaced Little Anthony in The Imperials, and then he got signed to Motown as The Serenaders. He was doing a lot of singing and then he realized he really just wanted to write and produce. So, like, one of the things that George was always a real psycho about was when I was doing my vocals, he used to pull some Stanley Kubrick shit on me, and like, you know, [make me do] 99 takes. The takes weren’t bad, I just think he wanted to drill it into me that it’s so important to put every little ounce of emotion into your singing, and to really push. People have to feel you through the record. If it doesn’t have feeling, it’s just pointless. 

Teddy: I learned a lot from George. We’d get into it. He’d get nose-to-nose with me in the bathroom and yell at me.

Wait, really?

Zee: They’re old-school dudes. Especially George, man. He’s a hard dude. 

Teddy: I would just learn from him. I learned how to really get a song done, the whole process, from start to finish. Even how to come up with a song. If you have a little melody in your head, go forward and put it out. He just taught me how to do it from start to scrap the right way. 

Zee: The coolest thing about George was he couldn’t play a single instrument. He would write songs, and he would write the melodies, but he would just hum everything to someone that could play the piano or write it down. If you look him up, he’s got some really incredible songs that he wrote and produced.

Why would he hassle you, Teddy?

Teddy: We just had our differences. He wanted to do it one way. I wanted to do it the other way. Just stuff like that. Nothing crazy.

What did he teach you about building a song?

Zee: Just starting with the foundation, like a house. Start with the rhythm tracks. The drums gotta be there. The drums are the foundation, so if the drums aren’t tight, whatever you build on top of that is going to be off, too. You know, and then like, just watching them do the strings and see how you record strings. And George, like I said, he’s a big singer, so all the harmonies and stuff. He’d teach me how to spread the harmonies out. Of course, some of these things you can’t teach me. Some of these things just come naturally to him in ways that they may not come exactly the same to me. But you learn.

I can hear it on the album. Everything is very solid. I feel like a lot of bands have lost their discipline nowadays.

Zee: Yeah, I mean, that’s kinda what it takes. To continue this story, we worked with them for a while and saw that through. Then me and Ted sort of were like, “OK, let’s ingest everything that they taught us, but now let’s get back to having it come from inside us.” What do we have to say? What are our songs going to sound like? Because of course, they’ve changed over time. They’ve gone through the 70s, 80s, 90s, so their ears aren’t exactly where our ears are. Our ears are probably looking for something that they might’ve done back in the late 60s, 70s. So Ted and me, just for a year or so, we were sort of working the two of us in the studio, writing all the songs from the album, sketching things out, redoing other things. We did this until all the rhythm tracks were sort of done and the songs were written, and then we have this kid. I’m so grateful, I met this kid Mitchell McCarthy. I cold-called him on a recommendation from one of the dudes that played violin with us. He had never done R&B and soul arrangements before, but we just sorta gave him an inspiration track, and he applied them to our songs. We’d give him some ideas and hum some melodies. Beyond that, he really just went in there and did his thing.

One thing I noticed is that you guys are doing things a bit differently from others who intersect hip-hop with funk and R&B. Your music is not as tough or psychedelic. It’s more of a romantic vibe.

Zee: For sure.

Was that kind of what you were going for at the outset?

Teddy: I love ballads. Zee does too. The slow tempo. I love the drums. The bass. The guitars. Those three all together. Just the whole thing. The singing on top of all that. No one’s really talking about love anymore, you know? I guess that’s where we went. 

Zee: I think Teddy and I are just real romantic dudes. I mean, it’s fun to party and turn the BPMs up and dance and have fun. But you don’t hear a lot of ballads anymore, rocking on the mainstream. I think that’s naturally where a lot of our vibe goes. And you know, like I say before about secret recipes, I think a lot of those kinds of chords and changes and the way that they would arrange these kinds of these things, a lot of that stuff is kind of lost. When you hear bands nowadays playing an R&B soul song, I can hear kind of what they’re emulating. A lot of them seem to be really inspired by the use of these samples by Wu-Tang, and of course Wu-Tang took the real dark part of a song, the part that sounds super gangster when you loop it, so a lot of these groups are doing it through that lens. Whereas I think Ted and I, we like that too, but we also like the real part about it that was sweet and smooth.

How did you get all the string arrangements and everything for the album?

Zee: Yeah, so we finished and gave this guy the rhythm tracks, with the song basically done but the strings and horns and all that stuff. And maybe I’ll hum a little scratch line on top of it and be like, “It would be nice if the violins did something kind of like this.” Then he goes and he literally parts out and writes a full arrangement for the violins and the oboes and the cellos. He’ll write for the brass. Let’s just say we have 10 people. We didn’t have a crazy budget, so he’s like, “Let me see how I can arrange this, given the amount of people we can play with.” He would come in there with four songs arranged. The string players would come in first; they would come in and bang a song out in a half an hour, and move to the next. Within two hours, three hours, we had four songs done.

Did you do this all in that big Newark loft?

Zee: Yeah. [Laughs] It’s not a pro studio, but it’s good enough. For the strings, we rented some mics. But beyond that, it’s a pretty simple setup. We recorded everything to this 24 track tape machine that the older guy we worked with, Paul, gave us. We don’t really know what we’re doing. Neither of us went to school for engineering. But just being around studios for a couple years and trial and error, we didn’t fuck it up, I don’t think.

No, I don’t think you fucked it up at all. I think you did a good job.

Zee: Obviously there are things me and Ted would like to improve on, sound-wise.

I really wanted to ask you about that song “Lover’s Masquerade.” Just the title is so, I don’t know, majestic? There’s something fancy about it. How did that image pop into your head?

Zee: I don’t know where the masquerade came from. But that song is inspired by someone we knew that told us this story about somebody and, um… I won’t name names. Someone told us a story about a guy that is producing and working with this rapper, and they got a crazy big deal from Def Jam or something, and he moved up into this big penthouse and got this Mercedes and smoked big cigars, acting like a real big cheese. Then the hits never came, and he just watched his whole life [fall apart] and his hot model girl left him. Took all the furniture out of the house.

So there’s a sad story behind the lover’s masquerade, then.

Zee: If you turn on MTV or if you listen to a lot of mainstream rap music, you know, it’s all about finding the hottest model chick and ballin’ and, you know, filling your coffers with fake gold. At the end of the day, when you’re old and sick, is that person going to be there? Does any of it really mean anything? Is she going to be there when you don’t have the hits? I think that song is really trying to express how we felt about those kinds of things.

What attracts you to this classic music in the first place?

Zee: One of the things I really love about soul music is that, like, well, shit…I mean, it comes from black culture, one of the most stepped-on, repressed cultures in America. A lot of the dudes that are writing these songs—like George, for example—are dudes that just came from nothing. Dirt poor. Grew up in a racist age, even more so than now. In gangs, maybe, growing up. These are tough dudes, but at the end of the day, they’re not singing about killing people and, like, you know, slapping a bitch in the face. They’re talking about love. For me it’s almost on some real definition of the word gangster. The real gangsters are quiet, calm, and care about their families. They do what they have to do to get by, but they’re not really about bad stuff. The toughest guys are the softest inside.


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