Mike Eli, James Young, Chris Thompson and Jon Jones have a come a long way since getting together as a band in their college days in Denton, Texas. That was 15 years ago and the band of musicians is now more like a band of brothers.
“Bands break up. Brothers are family and families works things out,” said Jones, who plays bass for Eli Young Band.
That’s how this band works, and works well it does. With three number one songs under their belt — “Crazy Girl,” “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” and “Drunk Last Night” — EYB is about to launch some new music that Jones said takes the band in “a new direction.”
The new single, “Turn It On,” releases to country radio on March 9 and the new four-song EP drops the next day.
You can hear some of the new songs before the release date when the Eli Young Band plays one show at 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27, at the Event Center at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in Charles Town, W.Va. Tickets are $40 and you must be 21 or older for this show (www.hollywoodcasinocharlestown.com).
I talked by phone with Jones on a day the band was in Nashville for Country Radio Seminar. The band was promoting the new music to country radio, doing some songwriting and playing the Opry that evening.
“We’re trying something new,” Jones said of the four-song EP project. There’s a shift in the music industry to releasing EPs and singles, he said, “we’ll try the hype.”
The band was in the studio in January recording new music with producers Ross Copperman and Jeremy Stover. Their music label, Republic Nashville, liked the music and fast-tracked the project with the title track, “Turn It On,” as the first single.
“It started as a mellow, Fleetwood Mac vibe,” Jones said of the track. “We got in the studio and were trying to find the right tempo and ended with it speeded up quite a bit.” The up-tempo song has a hook that instantly grabs you. Hear a snippet at eliyoungband.com.
The guys co-wrote all four songs on the EP, along with Copperman and Stover, and Rodney Clawson and Matt Dragstrem. “Plastic” is about being true to yourself.
“It’s an idea Mike had been kicking around,” Jones said. It’s about a girl, not the typical girl in a country song. “I think they said it very eloquently. There’s something really great about being confident and comfortable with who you are.”
‘Your Place or Mine,” which Jones co-wrote, “was a fun one to write. We’re four guys and we’re happily married. I have a 2-year-old. Mike has a 2 1/2-year -old.
“It’s fun to go back and visit a breakup, a fresh breakup and that feeling of loss,” he said. “You can go back and experience it through writing or listening to a song.”
The last track, “Drink You Up,” was “written with Ross and Jeremy. It’s a fun dance club song and is probably the biggest departure musically for us,” Jones said. “It’s OK to try music outside our box. Country radio and music is changing and we don’t know where it’s going.”
This EP, he said, is a bit more pop rock sound to it that’s hitting country radio, “which as a band we always had as we were developing, but we leaned more country,” he said. “It’s a way to get back to our roots. We’ve kind of gone full circle. It has some elements from our past records. There’s something fresh about it.”
The project was fun, compared to their last album, “10,000 Towns,” he said. “It took way too long to make, not as fun, because we got bogged down in the process. If you’re going to make music it needs to be fun. Music is a passion and it needs to be fun.”
It was that passion that got the guys together at the University of North Texas “about a half a life ago. We were in our 20s,” Jones said.
Like his band mates, he played in a band in high school. Jones’ mother started him with Suzuki violin lessons when he was 2 or 3, he said. He then learned to play guitar, then played in jazz bands, where he learned to play bass guitar. In college, he realized that while he appreciated the music teachers he had over the years, he didn’t want to be a high school music instructor. Jones, Thompson and Young started playing together, and later hooked up with Eli, who “came from country” playing the Opry circuit and doing demos, Jones said.
Back then, their aspirations (free beer!) were not what they are today, he said. “We all played in high school bands and we missed that.”
With a growing fan base in the Texas music scene, the band was introduced, so to speak, to country music in 2008 with “When It Rains.” That song peaked at 34 and stayed on the country charts for 37 weeks. The edgy video features the band among lots of black umbrellas and lots of rain.
“The rain maker didn’t work so there were guys with hoses spraying us down,” Jones recalled of making the video. “It was such a weird concept video, which we like to do when we can.
“At the time that was a ‘Crazy Girl’ for us,” he said. “It introduced us to a lot of people.”
“Crazy Girl,” (2011) has sold more than 2 million copies, he said. “It’s taken on a life of its own. We didn’t expect that.” It was the most played country song on Billboard’s 2011 year end chart and earned the band an ACM Award for Song of the Year.
They’ve come a long way — from traveling from gig to gig pulling a band trailer to a tour bus to two tour buses and, this year, adding an 18-wheeler. Crew travels in one bus and the band and their road manager travel in the other. “Plus our wives and kids when they come out with us. Then it’s a mad house on wheels!” he said.
Jones said he tends to be the peace maker in the band. Lead singer Eli is the natural leader. Lead guitarist Young is the “devil’s advocate” and the two leads sometimes “butt heads in that special way that lead guitarists and lead singers do,” Jones said. Drummer Thompson “is the guy that holds it all together.”
Jones said he doesn’t know what’s next for the band after the release of “Turn It On,” maybe another EP, maybe an album.
In the mean time, they will be doing some shows with Toby Keith and with Brett Eldredge.
“This is a good year to stand on our own two feet,” Jones said, so they will be headlining their own tour.