“I trick or treated longer than I should have,” admitted Ben Thornewill, keyboardist of Jukebox the Ghost, in an interview with The Daily Californian.
“I remember one time, walking down the street in a full puppy dog costume that I had for no good reason, and a neighbor friend of mine who was a year older opened the door with his girlfriend next to him.” He was 17. “I thought, I should just die now.”
These days, Thornewill has traded puppy dog ears for a Freddie Mercury mustache. And on Halloween, you won’t catch him trick or treating — instead, you’ll find him on stage, tickling the keys to everybody’s favorite Queen songs.
Jukebox the Ghost is a trio from Brooklyn whose power pop balladry can be at times lighthearted, other times existential (or even apocalyptic, à la first album Let Live and Let Ghosts). Its fan base is dedicated, if modest. The band has never cracked the mainstream, but its appeal lies more in its consistently good pop rock music throughout the past 11 years, and of course, in its wicked streak of humor.
This sense of humor is how Jukebox the Ghost’s annual HalloQueen concert series came to be.
HalloQueen is exactly what it sounds like — a Halloween celebration, in which the members of Jukebox transform from a quietly beloved band into a cover band for the most boisterous act of all time. After learning a few Queen songs for a friend’s wedding and beginning to sneak some into the band’s regular sets, the band’s drummer Jesse Kristin suggested the idea.
As soon as he said it out loud, the three of them knew they had to do it.
This year, the third iteration of HalloQueen brings Jukebox the Ghost to the Bay Area. HalloQueen has mostly only graced the East Coast in the past, but the band felt drawn to San Francisco this year.
“There’s just something about San Francisco that has this party vibe to it,” said Thornewill. “I’m sure the town knows how to show up in costume and knows how to party and get silly.”
HalloQueen unfolds like this: After playing an original set, Jukebox the Ghost gets into costume. While the bandmates pull on giant curly wigs backstage, audience members are invited to participate in their own costume contest on stage — although it’s hard to compete with Thornewill’s strapping Freddie Mercury costume.
“I will be in full character and full costume and mustache and will talk in an English accent,” he promised.
Jukebox enjoys not just the excuse to dress up and act ridiculous, but also the opportunity to play Queen songs — even though playing an entire set of them can be exhausting.
Thornewill admitted that he “totally collapse[s] at the end of it.” But, it doesn’t matter, he says, because “the vocal melodies are so beautifully written and the songs are so complex that, mostly, it’s just a party.” He pointed out that he and his bandmates are not trying to blindside people with obscure B-sides; they’re just playing all the hits. He finds that there’s something incredibly special about playing songs that are so universal.
On days the band isn’t masquerading as Queen, Jukebox the Ghost spends time writing its own songs. The trio hasn’t released a full studio album since its 2014 self-titled effort, but it did release a live album at the end of last year. Long Way Home was entirely self-recorded, released, and funded via a wildly successful Kickstarter after Jukebox parted ways with record label Cherrytree Records at the beginning of 2016.
Being independent for the first time in years has its challenges.
“There are lots of unspoken nice things about having a label,” said Thornewill. Deadlines, for example. Losing the infrastructure left the band free-floating for a while, which is why recording a new album has taken longer than usual — but it’s also given them more freedom. And now, having released a single, the rose-tinted “Stay the Night” (which breaks down into Queen-inspired cascading harmonies in the bridge) in March, the new album is about 98 percent done.
Being independent “gave us time to really be careful with it and really make the songs we wanted to make,” said Thornewill. Each member has also now learned how to home-record and produce. In a music industry heading in an increasingly more self-sufficient direction, taking the time to learn these skills is invaluable.
The live album was something Jukebox might not have had the freedom to do if not for being unsigned. While still figuring out the logistics of releasing and financing a new studio album, the band decided to just make another album.
“Over the years, the common comment with people has been: ‘I love your records, but I like your live show even better,’” said Thornewill. One tour later (not to mention countless hours poring over recordings from each show), Long Way Home was born.
Fans may not have new songs yet, but HalloQueen is certainly ample fodder to tide them over. Thornewill hopes that people come to the San Francisco show decked out, and that even those who aren’t familiar with the cult of Jukebox will come along for the rambunctious Queen sing-alongs.
Jukebox the Ghost plays at Slim’s in San Francisco on Friday, Oct. 27.