It’s been two decades since The Jenny Thing released what was meant to be its third and final album.
Matt Easton, cofounder and frontman of the Berkeley electro-rock group, says he never anticipated a fourth.
“I’m actually really surprised we made a record,” says the Oakland native, who lives in the Berkeley hills. “I was very comfortable with there not being a fourth Jenny Thing album—in fact, set on it, if you’d have asked me 10 years ago.”
But once he and guitarist Shyam Rao began experimenting with new material for the first time in over 15 years, they saw so much potential, they kept going till they created a proper album.
“American Canyon,” the eight-track LP, out June 18, finds the quartet — which formed at the University of California, Berkeley in 1991, with Rao, Easton and Easton’s childhood friends, bassist Ehren Becker and drummer Michael Phillips — coming back in a big way by tackling its heaviest, most philosophical subject matter so far.
Opening with the deceptively poppy “Paper Angel,” the album quickly takes a darker turn, relying on dark retro ‘80s synths, minimal guitars, distorted beats and heart-wrenching vocals to tell the story of a successful military man, who, after losing a decisive battle in the title track, must figure out how to make his way out intact and find redemption.
Inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges’ reporting on the war in Afghanistan and America’s growing nationalism during Donald Trump’s presidency, the anti-war album is ultimately about the desire to cling to love, even amid destruction and chaos.
The Jenny Thing’s musical ambitions were far less lofty when the band formed three decades ago. Its members simply wanted to create music inspired by their idols, like The Cure, The Smiths and New Order, and mostly wrote songs about love and relationships. Like most young bands, they also wanted to “make it.”
The name has no particularly deep meaning, according to Easton. It came to them when they were walking down Telegraph Avenue, hearing stories about various Jennys that guys were having “things” with. The group began to joke that every straight guy has been involved with a woman named Jenny.
“I overheard all these Jenny stories and it just tickled my funny bone,” says Easton. “It felt universal and also, it rhymes with anything.”
The group landed gigs at dorms, student houses and then nearby clubs. In 1993, its semi-acoustic debut pop album “Me” was released; it was the best-selling indie album of the year at Berkeley’s Rasputin Records.
“It’s 19-year-olds trying to sound like The Smiths and ending up sounding like Toad the Wet Sprocket,” Easton says.
Tighter and more polished from years of gigging, the band’s guitar-forward follow-up, 1995’s “Closer and Closer to Less,” got national distribution. Suddenly, The Jenny Thing was getting college radio play and requests to tour colleges and concert venues across California.
The group opened for the Gin Blossoms and Juliana Hatfield, played the main stage at the 25th San Francisco Pride and even made it through one round of “Star Search” in 1994, thanks to talent scouts visiting Rasputin’s who were looking for a Bay Area indie band to showcase.
“We knew it was weird, particularly being from Berkeley, that it was very off-brand for the band in a van trying to be authentic to go play ‘Star Search,’” says Easton. “But we thought it was hilarious and sort of walked right on.”
The response, though, was inconsequential, earning the group an online bulletin board mention, a tiny bit of publishing money and the opportunity to meet former MTV VJ Martha Quinn, who inspired the song “Martha” on the group’s third album, 1999’s post-post-punk “Nowhere Near You.”
Easton has a couple of theories about why the band didn’t make it.
It might be because it was creating ‘80s-inspired rock when musical tastes had gone grunge.
“Also, I don’t know that the industry was feeling warm on Asians in indie rock then,” says Easton.
After The Jenny Thing disbanded, Easton went solo. In 2000, he self-released “Love Ambition Demo,” which he calls “adult-contemporary post-rock.”
Between music projects, he, like the rest of his former bandmates, started working day jobs. Today he runs the tech group for a transportation company.
But after reuniting with his former bandmates for “American Canyon,” he’s eager to keep making “urgent and emotional music” with them. A fifth album is definitely on the horizon for The Jenny Thing.
“To be established, fit in and get respect were what we were aiming for as 25-year-olds,” says Easton. “Of course, we continue to want people to listen and find our music relevant. But in the end, I realize that just to make new things is the whole thing. It was always the thing for me then, but I just didn’t know it. The pinnacle of success is the record that we have right now.”