Q&A: JJ and The Pillars Don’t Make Old-Fart Folk


At the age of 18, JJ Thompson entered St. Lawrence College as a young man intrigued by music and jj-and-the-pillars-1-smalltheatre. But, as the semesters rolled, he began to write his own music and discovered that he had a “much stronger voice” than initially realized. Upon graduation, Thompson decided to put all he had into developing as a musician and starting a band. This decision eventually proved fruitful.

By July 2013, he had formed the folk-rock collective JJ and The Pillars. As the band gradually began to build its identity, it became a part of influential Toronto radio station 102.1 The Edge’s ‘Next Big Thing’ battle of the bands in 2014. On August 28, 2014, the group beat out 626 other acts to claim the title, notoriety, as well as financial and industry support.

Today, the band – Brett Wright, Stefan Hegerat, Don ‘Donny Boy’ Richard, and Thompson – are still admittedly finding their groove, but have discovered an appreciation for the spot they’re in now.

Riffyou.com recently caught up with Thompson to learn more about his band’s rising star.

RY: As a relatively young band in terms of time on the scene, how have you reacted to the attention you’ve received thanks in part to winning 102.1 The Edge’s ‘Next Big Thing’ competition?

JJ: “It’s almost surreal and unheard of. We were a band in our first year of playing together with 15 shows under our belt at best. We finished our first EP two days before the submissions deadline for the competition. I think The Edge heard our album before I got a chance to show my parents.  I don’t even feel like we won a competition. I just feel like we were invited to be a part of a great family at The Edge and Dine Alone Records, with a few incredible perks like being on The Edge’s Top 30, The Radio station that I first heard Death From Above, Alexisonfire, Crystal Castles, Etc. when I was a teenager. I had always thought how cool it would be to have a song on the station. Now we know… and its pretty frickin’ great!”

RY: How do such accolades and exposure affect the way you approach and perceive your band now?

JJ: “We’ve had to step it up. Once you have ‘real fans’ (not just your 300 family and friends that liked our Facebook page before this) you feel a sense of responsibility to deliver to them. They spend hard earned money to come and see a good show. We’ve been so fast-tracked to success that we are still working on things that new bands do: branding, stage presence, stage design. It’s been a blast! The ball is rolling.”

RY: Has the internal pressure of putting out quality music heightened as a result?

JJ: “Absolutely. But at the same time we are confident that we put out quality music because we are honest. I’ve never written anything to be ‘a hit.’ I write things that ring true to my own life and can be relatable to others. Also, quality is an opinion, some people might think our EP, The Wolves, is crap, but we love playing it and people love singing along with us! Either opinion is valid and we’re cool with everyone’s personal taste.”

RY: How does having a label like Dine Alone Records on your side help you guys reach where you want to be?

JJ: “Man, it’s great. I have been a fan of Dine Alone since I was a teenager. I was pretty nervous to step into that building for the first time and meet the big boss. But, it’s just a beautiful home in the east end of Toronto with a family of music lovers, hard workers and huge stacks of Alexisonfire and Lumineers vinyl. It’s amazing to work with a label that you believe in, and believes in you back.”

RY: Musically, you’ve have carved a spot for yourselves in the modern folk-rock environment. What is it about that style of music that inspires you to create it?

“Folk-rock is so interpretive. Sometimes it can be super chill (City & Colour, Damien Rice, Ryan Adams) and sometimes it can be foot stomping and energetic (Mumford & Sons, Lumineers). I’d say we’re more of an alternative-folk-rock band, heavily influenced by the ‘90s Seattle-style rock era. But, The Wolves has that evident folk-rock appeal for sure.”

RY: I know some people perceive folk – no matter the age of who’s performing it – to be an ‘old fart’ style of music. I assume you would have a different opinion?

JJ: “That’s why this generation put ‘rock’ on the end. Soon it will be folk-metal. That probably already exists, but I’m not going to Google it because I fear what I might find.

“There’s something cozy about folk music, for sure. I always picture cabins, log fires, acoustic guitars. Also, there’s nothing wrong with being an old fart at heart. Some of our music is made for the cabin, but I would hope that you’re with a lot of friends, drinking some great microbrews by the fireplace while you listen to it…livin’ the folk life.”

RY: Obviously, to execute folk songs very well, you need to have some excellent stories to pull from. What is your best story?

JJ: “‘Burning Leaves’ was a folk riff that I couldn’t stop finger picking, but I didn’t have any lyrics at first. I was sitting at my computer, right near a window at my old place in the Beaches in Toronto (which faced a cemetery at Kingston and Woodbine) and I was a spectator to a funeral from the comfort of my living room. It was such a weird feeling to look through the glass to the family grieving over a recent loss, and me being able to experience it with them from my living room. It hit me pretty hard. What I came up with first was ‘I found the strength, to see your grave, and when I cried, you made it rain.’”

RY: We discussed Dine Alone Records earlier, so this question now needs to be asked – when can we expect a new album from you guys?

JJ: “Well, we’re getting ready to re-release the remastered album WOLVES internationally to iTunes with our friends at Dine Alone Records with an added bonus track called ‘The Pit.’ This is our first song we’ve recorded as a four-piece. It’s self-produced, and as close to live off the floor as we could get. It is a pretty heavy song for us, with the same elements of our other stuff, but with new heavier guitar tones. I’m still learning so much about my equipment and about what sounds I like. This track is definitely more experimental and I think Queens of The Stone Age, Foo Fighters and Sons of Anarchy fans will dig it!”

RY: What do you want people to get from your music?

JJ: “Anything they want. But mostly a great idea of what they are going to see live… and then we will exceed it. I hope we can draw the same emotions from the listeners that we feel when we perform, or when I wrote the songs.”

-Adam Grant

Click here to view JJ and The Pillars’ forthcoming tour dates.

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