Jonathan Tyler didn't drop his band name, the Northern Lights, out of sheer vanity or a desire to focus the attention all on himself. He did it because he didn't have $50,000. After recording as Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights since 2007, a left-field lawsuit forced the Texas-based roots rocker to move on without the moniker — because it was one battle he couldn't afford to fight.
"An attorney out of Minnesota hit us up," Tyler explains to Rolling Stone Country, "and was like, 'I had a band in the Seventies called the Northern Lights. So you can't use this, or we'll sue you.' But then later he came back to us and said, 'OK, you can use it — but it's going to be 50 grand.' Well, shit. I don't have that kind of money sitting around. We're not the Rolling Stones."
Tyler's upcoming record, Holy Smokes, will be the first to be released under his name alone — and his first for Thirty Tigers, his new home after a deal with Atlantic ended when he realized the major-label partnership wasn't exactly a match made in artistic heaven.
"They wanted to pick the songs and pick the producer, and that's not me," Tyler says. "I understand it works for a lot of people, but for me it didn't work. We recorded tons of songs, but soon it became clear we weren’t going to get anywhere together."
Defeated, he retreated to alcohol: Everything felt a little easier a few beers in. "I was drinking myself into oblivion all the time because I was so frustrated with life in general," he says. "And I thought, at a certain point, something's gotta give. I'm going to end up killing myself, or something really bad will happen." He moved to Los Angeles, cleaned up and came back to Texas when he was ready to record again. He funded the making of Holy Smokes by playing constant gigs and using the money to pay for studio sessions. It took months.
"I was broken, I'd lost my confidence," Tyler confesses. "I had to find a way to make it enjoyable again and get some gratification. So I was like, 'Fuck it. I'm going to make this thing myself.'"
Tyler had always wanted to make a record that had more of a gritty, Americana sound — his former label preferred he steer towards a modern rock approach — and he realized that this was the perfect time to capitalize on his freedom. Sure, he didn't have the generous budget of an Atlantic deal, but he didn't have a chorus of opinions to cater to either. For all his trials, much of Holy Smokes is loose, oozy and bluesy, with a southern-steeped Seventies sound that's confident, infectious and playful: Songs like the piano-vamped, rodeo disco romp of "Honey Pie" would have made the Kings of Leon, circa 2003, drool. And there's nary a teary woe-is-me weeper about getting run down by the Man. Even the album's most tender moment, the Nikki Lane duet "To Love Is to Fly," is about the beauty lingering beneath dangerous relationships.
Appropriately, Tyler's tour kicks off in Texas this week. He'll be on the road through fall with a stop at Nashville's Americana Music Festival in September. As for that name, it's the same band, the same players, and Tyler wasn't about to get caught up in another battle. It's a new era for the singer, anyway: Free of restraints, the chokehold of alcohol and no one to report to but his own instincts. Plus, "maybe in a few years that guy [who filed the lawsuit] will be cool," he laughs, "and be like, 'OK, fine. I'll take five grand."