A head full of comics, cartoons and songs: interview with Tommy Siegel of Jukebox the Ghost

Tommy Siegel Jukebox the Ghost musician and artist

Tommy Siegel

There have been, there are and there will always be visual artists composing music, professional musicians making paintings and a lot of people working simultaneously in both fields.
It’s really not uncommon for art and music to go hand in hand and you’ve got just loads of examples out there.
The Prodigy singer Maxim has recently become a super successful artist, Prince’s musical director of 20 years Morris Hayes was really into drawing and even received an art scholarship as a kid; both Italian film score composer Stefano Fasce and Irish musician Graham Miles originally wanted to work as graphic designers.
But guitarist and vocalist Tommy Siegel of the American power-pop trio Jukebox The Ghost went a lot farther and actually made a second career out of his first passion, which has always been drawing comics and cartoons.

Since getting together in 2003, Jukebox the Ghost – whose other two band members are keyboardist and vocalist Ben Thornewill and drummer and vocalist Jesse Kristin – released five studio albums of very cheerful and energetic power pop music you can enjoy and dance and sing and have fun with.
Jukebox the Ghost are also really into Queen and have an amazing tradition of making a yearly costume show called HalloQueen when they dress up like Freddie & co. and cover their songs.

I hope this helps, cartoon book cover by Tommy Siegel Jukebox the Ghost musician and artist

I Hope This Helps, by Tommy Siegel ©

Tommy, Ben and Jess went on countless American and European tours right from the beginning, played over 1,000 live shows all around the world and participated in popular U.S. late-night television programmes like The David Letterman Show.
When the Covid pandemic hit the live music industry preventing the trio from touring and performing live in 2020, Tommy Siegel had already embarked on a challenge to draw a cartoon a day for 500 consecutive days which he has just turned into a clever and playful comics & cartoon book.

Hope This Helps, Comics and Cures for 21st-Century Panic by Tommy Siegel is a brilliant 200-page collection of extremely amusing comics, cartoons and caricatures spanning from coffee machines to Donald Trump, from mobile phone obsession to star signs.

Over our funny chat, Tommy confirmed what I’d already read in other articles about him, what I witnessed myself when I was attending arts high school in my teens and what a lot of different painters in history have often said: at a certain age, typically around 13, artists need to distance themself from drawing, as if making sketches was somewhat a very dangerous activity.
As someone who has repeatedly found herself in trouble for drawing caricatures, I guess can relate.
Because the pencil can really be mightier than the sword when you’re surrounded by idiots.

Tommy Siegel I hope this helps, cartoon book by Jukebox the Ghost musician and artist

Tommy Siegel trying to indicate something

Tommy, you are both a musician and a cartoonist, so what was your dream job as a child? 

As a kid, I was totally obsessed with comics, I was really into newspaper comics, my favourites were definitely Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. I was obsessed with comics as a kid and then that thing happened where you hit puberty and you decide that the things you liked as a kid aren’t cool anymore. And so I started playing the guitar.

Why the guitar and not another instrument?

I think it was that sort of typical teenager thing of just be like “I like rock ‘n roll!”. And then I didn’t really look back for another decade or so, and I was just doing the band thing. And then, yeah, while we were on tour over the years, I started taking drawing requests from our fans. Fans would tweet us requests like “can you draw the band as Lego figurines?” or something like that, and then I would draw the band like figurines and I would tweet it back at them, and it kind of became something fun to do on tour. And eventually, that just sort of gradually reintroduced comics into my life where I started taking it more seriously.

Who are your main sources of inspiration in comics?

I feel like I’m getting more acquainted with the world of modern webcomics, which is this amazing landscape of just incredible independent artists. But my childhood influences are still there. You know, it’s sort of like that you can’t escape the giant shadow of your childhood influences.

I just LOVE what you just said. It’s so poetic. I’m going to highlight it in blue in the interview.

And so to answer your question, for me, a good comic is still The Far Side, this is what comes to my mind when I think about what a perfect comic is for me. But I feel like I’m also getting to know a lot of the stuff out there today and I’m just constantly blown away by what people are doing, and I feel like I need to hold myself to an even higher standard whenever I see this new good stuff.

What do you think of modern Disney movies, as opposed to Disney Animated Classics? How about the way they are drawn?

Um, you know, I’ve got nothing bad to say. But well, I will tell you one thing. One thing I do miss is that I think that they used to have better music.

This is a very diplomatic answer.

I don’t know, I saw Mulan, I thought it was cute, you know.

No, I actually don’t know. Anyway, researchers say that we are increasingly losing our ability to handwrite because we are always typing. Do you think this is also affecting the way we draw?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that, in the same way, organic handwriting is sort of going the way of the dinosaur. I always assumed I’d be drawing on paper, but then when I started drawing comics more regularly I eventually just started seeing the benefits of drawing on a device or a computer, and now I’m fully switched over to drawing on an iPad.

Really?!

But you know, they’ve done a pretty good job of making it feel like a tactile experience, and then a drawing with a thing that is shaped like a pen. And the screen has a cover on it. So it kind of feels like paper. So it definitely, it’s about as close as possible to drawing paper. If I found myself going back to drawing on paper, I would be annoyed that I can’t like hit undo.

So you prefer drawing on a device, in the end.

I mean, as far as an individual kind of solo experience, you kind of can’t beat pen and paper. But as far as a better-finished product, I can definitely make a better-finished product on an iPad. No question about that.

Some other research shows that children do not draw today as much as they have always used to. Why is that, in your opinion?

I don’t know the study or anything you’re referencing, but I would guess it has a lot to do with kids having devices like iPhones and iPads and stuff like that, which certainly I’m really glad weren’t around when I was a kid because I think that they capitalise your attention and would prevent you from learning the sort of tactile skills that you would otherwise learn in the real world. If I had a kid right now, my goal would be to keep them away from technology for as long as possible. Technology is a very useful tool, but I think that these companies have maybe done too good of the job of figuring out how our brains work, so they can monopolise your attention pretty, pretty well. And I don’t think that’s a good thing for me.

What would you suggest to kids who want to become cartoonists?

It depends on what someone is trying to do and if they are trying to develop a webcomic and have a following. You know, that kind of thing. I would just advise them to flail wildly in every direction and do not limit themselves because that’s kind of what I did, deciding about what I could and couldn’t draw. The internet allows you to do that; if you were pre-internet and you were making comic books or something, I think you would feel more pressure to know exactly what you wanted to say in the comic book. But I think that today the internet allows you to be just limitless, and you can see what people are resonating with in real time.

Do you think it’s important to get a formal education in arts for somebody who wants to become a cartoonist?

If people want to do it, I think that’s great, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I mean, I’m a musician and a cartoonist, and I didn’t get a formal education in either of those things. I know a lot of people who are working in both fields, whether they got an education or not. I think it comes down to what you’re passionate enough about to try and challenge yourself to be better. Because if you don’t have that, then the formal education probably isn’t gonna make a big difference either.

Let’s switch to Jukebox the Ghost now. So, you guys are really into Queen. I heard about your annual event costume show called HalloQueen…

Well, we’ve certainly used them as a full band reference. Because, you know, we’ve got a piano player who has just a great voice, and as a guitarist, I love Brian May’s style. But it’s funny because Queen are not a band that we thought about consciously until we started doing the HalloQueen show every year where we would do a basic costume set. So we would playset as ourselves, get into costume and then play a whole set of Queen dressed as Queen. Once we started doing that – about five years ago – it kind of seeped into our music, too. And so our music started sounding more like Queen just because we really got to know Queen. So even though I don’t think they’re the biggest influence for anybody in the band individually, they became the base influence collectively as a band.

Do Brian May and Roger Taylor know about what you are doing?

As far as I know, they don’t. They don’t know about what we’re doing. But I thought it would be very cool if they did!

Did you enjoy the movie Bohemian Rhapsody? What do you think of that movie?

Finally, I thought it was highly entertaining. I thought that a lot of it was pretty, pretty corny.

Corny is such a very American word from you to throw at me. And what do you think of today’s music? What are you listening to?

Um, let’s see. I feel like I’m in the sort of 2020 social isolation, I’ve been listening to a lot more podcasts and music, which is very unusual for me. But I mean, musically, I feel like this year has also forced me to come back to some comfort food music that I wasn’t listening to a lot before because I was always trying to listen to new stuff. But this year, I’ve been listening to a lot of Grateful Dead; a lot of their live recordings are in my diet for sure. But my favourite band is Deerhoof and they just came out with a really great record that I’ve been listening on repeat.

It is often said that pop music is not as “serious” as, for example, jazz or reggae. How would you respond to somebody saying that pop music is superficial?

Mmm-hmm. Certainly, if you’re just analysing the music behind it and the density of the actual musicality that’s going on, then, of course, pop music does not compare to the melodic and harmonic width of jazz. So, if they see it as musically superficial, they would be right – that’s how popular music compared through the ages is just a lot simpler. But I would say the benefit of pop music is that – unlike jazz which tends to have to have some awareness of the genre from the listener – the whole point of pop music is that you can reach a larger mass audience because you’re dealing with similar musical themes and structure that people understand. So if you can appreciate that aspect of it, then well, I’ve never seen the genres as competing with each other. It’s like going to different restaurants: sometimes you’re in the mood for something really exciting and expensive, you know, like a four-course meal – and sometimes you’re in the mood to go get a burger. And Jukebox the Ghost is probably more like a burger.

As you discuss pop music I’m thinking about Michael Jackson, The King of Pop. I don’t know about America, but in Europe, everybody seems to have completely forgotten about him. No events, no talks, no legacy. No track ever being played on the radio. What do you think of that?

I think it probably has a lot to do with that documentary that came out a few years ago, which I did watch. And I have to admit, as a huge Michael Jackson fan for my whole life, I think it was sort of embarrassing. I felt embarrassed that I had been in denial of a lot of the accusations against him, and while watching the documentary, I was like “oh, this is gross”. So, yes, this kind of ruined Michael Jackson for me. I think it’s pretty horrible.

Apparently, they are allegations.

I mean, allegations, accusations… it does have stronger evidence basis, there’s quite a lot of evidence. It’s a long documentary, it’s like four or five hours long, and you just sort of leave with the sense of… well, have you watched it?

I haven’t. Of course, the whole idea of children being allegedly sexually abused by a singer is disturbing, but why wouldn’t it be possible to separate the artist from the art and still enjoy the music? Because whatever he might have or have not done, the music is still there.

No, I think not. This certainly is and he certainly is the most extreme example I can think of when you wonder “can you separate the art from the artist?” – and I think that’s maybe not even a cultural decision. It’s kind of an individual decision. I think, for me, getting to know that side of Michael Jackson did ruin the music. But then everyone’s different.

Let’s talk about something less catastrophic now. How did you come up with Jukebox the Ghost as a band name?

We were trying to come up with a band name and we were just looking for words. I remember I thought jukebox was a good word to be put in a band name. Ben, the other singer, really wanted something involving ghosts as there was a passage from a book that he wanted to reference. So we ended up just sort of smashing them together. And, so yeah, Jukebox the Ghosts. We were still at college.

What were you studying at college?

Journalism.

Oh, no.

You know, it’s funny. I studied journalism, I love writing and I love journalism, I’m definitely a journalism junkie, as far as being a reader goes. I studied journalism in college because I thought it was a more practical career path than music or illustration, which I knew I was passionate about but I figured it was strange to spend money on getting a degree in that. So, journalism was my practical choice, and I feel there’s sort of great irony that my practical choice has been the one that has never given me a job. I mean, I did a bunch of internships, I interned at the Washington Post for a year but, other than that, I never actually had a journalism job. This was just sort of a happy accident, it was just that the band was fine. If this wasn’t the case, I’m sure I would have tried to get a job somewhere. But when we graduated college we just got into a minivan with the band, and we were just touring all the time, and that seemed a lot more exciting than trying to get a job somewhere. So I just sort of lived in the minivan planning shows for years and years and years.

With so many music bands splitting, what do you think it takes to a band to stick together?

Um, I think we got really lucky because we were friends before anything happened in terms of an industry sense. So, even at our worst, we always have a bedrock of brotherhood that you can always come back to. But yeah, for a lot of bands, I think they are just under different circumstances. You know, you have one person who is like “I wrote this song, so I get the songwriting royalties” – and everyone else is going like “Hey, wait a minute, you own us a percentage of this”. Yes, but what percentage? I just think we’re very lucky as those questions were answered for us and by us by being all there from the beginning and by us being friends before we became successful anyway.

What do you think of The X Factor?

I’ve never seen it. But as a concept, I certainly don’t like that people are looking for a way to jumpstart their career. I’m not sure if it’s like a reliable way to do it. But as far as it is entertaining for people…

That’s the same answer you gave me to the question about Walt Disney movies.

I try not to say too much about things I actually don’t know anything about.

Are you recording anything new at the moment?

Yeah, I’m in New York right now with my band, we formed our Covid quarantine pod together. And we are working on album number six and we’re hoping to be done in the next month. We’d love to go on tour again, we’ve done a lot of touring in Europe, we just love touring in Europe, it is always such an adventure for us.

What do you like about touring in Europe?

It’s different enough from America that it just wakes you up! You’re like “Oh my Gosh, I’m in a different country!”. Even just the cultural differences you have in short drives are enormous. I think it’s because here in the States, you could even drive for 20 hours and walk out of the van and have no idea that you’re in a different place – whereas if you drive for 20 hours in Europe, you’re going to cross through 15 borders and a bunch of different languages and you will feel like you’re in a very different place. So, that aspect is always very exciting when you’re on tour. I would also like to do a book tour with I Hope That Helps… I really wish I could do a book tour soon!

Where does I Hope This Helps as a book title come from?

Every time I was posting comics that were obviously pointless guides to something – you know, like a guide to shoes or whatever, or whatever else about star signs that were just totally pointless – well, every time I would post them somewhere, I just wrote the caption “I hope this helps”. And a friend actually messaged me midway through the cartoon project and said that this should have been the title of the book. And I was like “you’re right!”

Yes, I saw your comics about star signs. Very entertaining. What star sign are you?

Cancer. What about you?

Guess.

Scorpio?

How dare you? I’m a Leo.

Really? That was my second guess.

Too late.

Tommy Siegel I hope this helps, cartoon book by Jukebox the Ghost musician and artist

Tommy Siegel by… Tommy Siegel ©


About The Author

Silvia, not Sylvia
Founder of The Shortlisted Magazine

The one behind the wheel.