THE WORKING MUSICIAN
Jamie Arentzen discusses American Hi Fi & Miley
By Jadi Stuart
Photograph by Brian Parillo
Quiz! Who is Dutch, German, Swiss, Spanish, Italian and plays the guitar? Jamie Arentzen, that’s who! You may not have heard of him until now, but this all-American kid from Connecticut travels around the world playing guitar with his band American Hi Fi, and manages to squeeze in time to tour with Disney darling Miley Cyrus. I caught up with Jamie at a Los Angeles coffee shop to talk about the upcoming fifth American Hi Fi album, his past, present, and future ventures; what it’s like to tour with Miley and what it takes to be a working musician in the ever fickle music industry.
If one were to google Jamie Arentzen, one wouldn’t find out too much about him. Even unofficial fan pages, where ardent followers of celebrity often find the most minuscule facts, seem to be lacking. So, when I met Jamie for coffee, I was on a mission to rectify this situation. I hope you are as delighted as I was by what I found.
LAX: What’s your family heritage?
J.A.: Arentzen is Danish, that’s my dad’s side. My dad is Danish, Swiss, German and Spanish. Somebody from Switzerland married somebody from Spain and then they moved to Cuba. My grandmother’s parents on my dad’s side were all living in Cuba and the Dominican Republic and moved to New York. My grandparents lived on a farm in Manhattan. My mom is all Italian; first generation I think. Actually, my grandmother (her mother) was born in New York and her father was born in Italy.
LAX: Do you have siblings?
J.A.: One older brother. He’s a glass blower. He has his own shop in Vermont. He married a girl from Sweden who he met in Denmark. They lived in Norway for about 10 years where he worked at glassblowing school.
LAX: What did you want to be when you grew up?
J.A.: Well, I started out by wanting to be a professional baseball player. I was into it. Then, quickly it turned into me wanting to play guitar in a band. I started a band when I was 11 or 12. I had a band before I had any idea how to play an instrument. It was like me and the kid across the street and I wanted to play drums so badly, but he already had a drum set and was taking lessons, so if we were going to have this band together I had to do something else, and it was guitar, so we would actually jam before I had any clue. It would be pretty much noise. We would take music from one song, and lyrics from another page and just put them together.
LAX: Did you start playing guitar at age 12?
J.A.: Yeah, shortly after I started the band, I started taking guitar lessons. I think I always regretted not being a drummer. I have learned a little bit since then but I do love that I’m a guitar player.
LAX: You went to Berkley School of Music in Boston, MA. At what point did you decide you wanted to play the guitar for a living?
J.A.: I kept trying to get out of it. I just thought it would be too hard. Through high school I was into it, and then I went to college for music. I started at the University of Miami in Florida and I got there and it was so intense. I was like, forget it, I don’t want to study that hard. Then I went to the University of Connecticut and did Liberal Arts and it just seemed hard to be in a band. Then I moved to Boston with some of my friends from home and we had our band and that’s all I wanted to do. I sacrificed the opportunity to study in Europe because I was like, “But no, the band.” And my parents were like, “We’re giving you the opportunity to live in Europe for a semester or a year,” and I’m like, “I can’t do it, I’ve got the band.” I was sure that this band was so much better than so many of the bands that were on the radio. Looking back on it I was so wrong but you have to believe it. It’s not possible to do it for any other reason other than you have to. It’s too hard to do it if there’s something else you’d rather be doing. You can’t do it just because you think you’re gonna be rich and famous.
LAX: Do you have any interesting stories about American Hi-Fi?
J.A.: When we were making our first record we thought that we were a really cool rock band, and there was a moment when we were recording our first record that the singer came up with an idea for a song. It was going to be for a band that I was going to be in and I was going to be the drummer. In this band, it was going to be me and all girls and it was going to be a way for me to meet girls and just have some fun and play drums. We played that song for our producer the next day and he was like, “That song is a hit! You have to put it on the record.” And I was like, “No, no, this is for this other thing.” And he was like, “If we don’t record this song for the record I’m not gonna finish the record.” We were like, “Seriously?” We ended up recording the song, and it was a hit called, Flavor of the Week. Looking back on it, I’m really glad we did, and I really do like that song. It gave us a great opportunity to travel around the world. If we had stuck to our guns and wanted to be as cool as we thought we were we might not have ever had a chance.
LAX: Do you write your own music?
J.A.: I don’t write and complete songs but I co write with the band and other artists. I’m not good with lyrics. I don’t feel like I really have something to say; some message that I really want to get out there. I have always been a little more focused on the sound of the music.
LAX: What is your personal taste in music?
J.A.: It changes. I love a band called Wilco, I love Willie Nelson, I like rootsey music; Neil Young and The Rolling Stones. I like classic rock basically. I also like more modern rock like that stuff I play with that band and the stuff I play with Miley.
LAX: How is playing with Miley?
J.A.: I love it so much. I never would have thought I would ever be a side guy for somebody. I just always had my band that I was in and that was enough for me and then this opportunity came up. It’s so much fun and it’s easy to lose myself in the music. She works harder then anybody I have ever been around. Everybody that’s in the group and everybody that’s around her is like family and I get to travel around the world playing for tons and tons of people.
LAX: How did you get involved with playing for Miley Cyrus?
J.A.: Stacy [Jones, the lead singer of American Hi Fi] was producing a band that Miley’s manager was also working with, and right as she started she was going to play live shows. Her manager asked my friend Stacy if he would be that drummer and musical director and help put a band together. He told me that, “Billy Ray has a daughter who has some show, and she is going to be really big someday and we are going to do Good Morning America and something else, do you want to do it?” And I said, “Sure, if you do it, I will do it.” That was just about five years ago now.
LAX: Where is your favorite place you’ve toured?
J.A.: A place I have never been with Miley, but that I have been with American Hi Fi is Japan. A place I was surprised to fall in love with is Australia. I never thought I would even go there. It just seems so far and a lot like it is here but it is a mix of my favorite cities from around the world. The people are so cool and less greedy; less about hoarding money and more about finding enough money to enjoy their time off. To have as much time off as they can. While I was there I was ready to move. I was like “I don’t ever want to leave,” but now that I’m back, I’m not ready to move
LAX: Do you have a favorite guitar?
J.A.: Yes, I think I do. It’s a 1963 Gibson SG junior and a close second is a 1962 Fender jazzmaster. They’ve gone back and forth, but those are my two favorites. They don’t tour with me any more; they just seem so fragile and precious and if anything happened… I have a couple just like them that wouldn’t be irreplaceable.
LAX: Who are you greatest musical influences?
J.A.: As far as guitar players, Mike Campbell who is the guitar player for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Joey Santiago who is the guitar player for The Pixies and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth. Elvis Costello was a huge musical influence for [American Hi Fi] and years ago we met him at a Grammy party and he was like “I love your record! It sounds great loud. We listen to it in the kitchen all the time!” I was floored that he had even heard of our band. After that conversation he had to leave and he said, “It was great to meet you! We should tour together someday!” We were like, “Yeah!” and thinking, he’s just saying that. A couple months later we got a call saying Elvis Costello wants to bring you on tour. We toured with him for a couple of months. I watched every single sound check and every show. Usually when you’re touring with a band you’ll see a couple of performances and then you kind of do your own thing, but I was there every night. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
LAX: What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?
J.A.: Lionel Richie told us as a band “Always write songs other people can sing.” Another piece of advice would be: Stay in school.
LAX: Any words of wisdom for wanna-be rock stars?
J.A.: Don’t be a musician unless you can’t help it. It’s such a struggle and I’ve been so lucky that I can’t even believe that I still get to do this. Also, be easy to get along with. Ninety-five percent of your time is down time, hanging out.
LAX: Are you a cat person or a dog person?
J.A.: Can you be both? I’m both. I’m an animal person but I really don’t like dogs that don’t behave.
LAX: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to talk about?
J.A.: Yes actually. American Hi Fi is in the middle of recording our fifth album and we’re looking to have it out either this Summer or Fall; late summer, early fall. I think it’s the best stuff we’ve done.