Deli Magazine

Reflecting with U.S. Royalty on Their Debut Album, Mirrors

- by Jarrett Blankenship


After two years of traveling and playing shows, U.S. Royalty is finally ready to release their debut full-length album, Mirrors.  I recently got a chance to sit down with lead singer John Thornley to talk about the record, his family, fashion and the ways we all connect with the music in our lives.

Deli: The title of your new record is Mirrors. “The Mirror” is also the name of the opening track.  What about the idea of mirrors made it right to represent this album?

John Thornley: “We don’t necessarily read into a lot of things right away or have a big idea for something. We just try to focus on the music. It never comes all at once like some big revelation, it comes over time. For the song, 'The Mirror,' we’d worked with Alex Goose who helped co-write the first two tracks on the album. He had sent us an instrumental of some sampling work he’d done and we really liked it, but we were planning to write a song around it. Then we were doing the rest of the record and as it started taking shape that song started making more sense and we ended up just re-playing what he had given us originally with more guitars and vocals and a harmonica. 

It just felt like an intro to the album – and usually we don’t like intros on albums – but, for this it made sense. It put the whole album in the perspective we wanted people to see from the get-go. And, we just kept the title he put on the song. I’m not sure why he named it that, but we decided to keep it and name the album Mirrors because it was a reflection of our lives, the last two years of traveling and everything we’d been working on. I’m sure it could be even grander or more personal than that depending on how the songs relate to your life.”

Deli: You guys wrote the songs for this album over a couple of years spent on the road?

JT: “We actually wrote a bunch of songs for the album over that time, but the ones actually on the record were really done over only a few months. We were just writing more songs and writing more songs and playing shows and touching up things trying to figure out what to do. 'Give Up the Ghost' was a song we’d written in the summer of ’08, but everything else is more recent.”

Deli: Well, the whole album has a “road trip” vibe or embodies some essence of traveling. I have a picture of Route 66 in my head when I listen to it.

JT: “Yeah, I think that’s in a lot of our heads too!”

Deli: Were there certain places or inspirations along the way that really stuck with you when putting together the pieces that became Mirrors?

JT: “We would take any shows we could get and just travel and go there - even if it was Chicago for two nights and we could only play one other show along the way. Maybe that didn’t make sense promotionally or hype-wise, but it felt good to play in all those different places. We had experiences like sleeping on people’s floors in Kentucky, flying down to New Orleans and Texas for SXSW and even going to places bands don’t really go, like Miami. Miami turned out to be a really cool place that we will come back to again and again because it was such a good time with good people and the people really responded to the music. This was even before we had an album out or a lot of hype – I think the hype was generated by us just showing up and playing. Now we just want to reflect those times through a well recorded album that we can really get behind and be proud of.”

Deli: You and your brother, Paul, are both in U.S. Royalty, how long have you been playing together?

JT: “I would say since middle school. He was probably in fifth grade and I was in seventh when we first got into playing together. I got a drum set and he got a bass from our parents for Christmas and we started thinking, 'Oh yeah we could play!' We got our cousin and another friend to play guitar and for awhile we would just drive the band from the back seat.”

Deli: Is it challenging being in the band with your brother? Do you two have any sibling rivalry?

JT: “I’m sure the other two guys could testify to a myriad of offenses… <laughing> It can get pretty heated, but it seems like where some people would hold grudges and there’d be tension for the whole trip, ours just kind of flares up and it’s really hot for a second and then it dies back down to normal.”

Deli: Well, it’s clear that you two play very naturally together.

JT: “I think, for me, backing off and focusing just on vocals and lyrics really helped the process. Before that I always played an instrument and I felt like if I wasn’t playing an instrument then I wasn’t doing anything. So, I’d always try to find something to do like play some keys instead of just focusing on the song and directing where it should go. If I give my brother some direction on the song and then just let him figure out musically what he wants to play he can make it sound a lot better.”

Deli: I read that when you were a kid you thought you might be a historian and that your whole family is into things like that.

JT: “Yeah, we give each other biographies for presents and I watch documentaries on lots of things.  You know, you have your different dreams and I definitely want to play music, but if I ever got older and wanted to stop doing that I could see myself being comfortable at a college or university teaching history.”

Deli: That makes sense. “History professor” is a classic ex-rock star fallback career.

JT: <Gracious Laughter>

Deli: This album has a very “American” sound to it. Does your background with history come into your songwriting?

JT: “Sure, from reading literature especially.  Different writers influence me on where to go with a topic or how to make it more interesting. I had trouble writing lyrics when I first started because I’d never really done it, I guess. You know how you can tell yourself for a long time, 'Oh, I can’t do that,' until you believe it? For a long time I was really into just being a drummer playing drums and I told myself I couldn’t write lyrics. But, then came round the situation where I didn’t have an instrument anymore and I was left with my singing. So, I focused on that and reading helped to widen my view. It helps you learn to look at your experiences through a different light. 

I want the lyrics to connect to people but in an interesting way. Maybe in a way they hadn’t felt, because that’s how it connects with me. Like, “Oh that’s so simple, but I hadn’t really heard it that way before.”  

As far as the “American” thing is concerned, we’ve never tried to be an Americana type band. But, I guess we do get a lot of those associations. I think it’s just what comes out from what we’re around.  We’ve always been blues based and we just go from there.”

Deli: I have to ask you about your band’s ties to the fashion industry. Esquire named you the “Best Dressed Band” at CMJ this year, you and your song 'Equestrian' appeared in a promotional video for GANT clothing and you’ve been collaborating with fashion designer Robert James. With the modern music industry in the middle of an identity crisis, do you see this as another potential avenue for musical success? Can we expect more collaboration like this from U.S. Royalty in the future?

JT: "We’re really inspired by pictures - old pictures and old movies and a lot of that has to do with clothing design. We get inspired when we see people in that realm, like a tailor, making things. It’s something we don’t necessarily do ourselves but that we get to look up to.  So I think it connects with us because it’s a totally different world but it’s so open to collaboration.

I guess we’ll continue to do that, but for us it’s really about focusing on the music and that’s why it’ll be so great to get the album released.  Because, for awhile we only had a few songs out and people were seeing all these different clothing companies take interest and they were thinking, 'Are they models or are they musicians or what?' We hope that this record really cements that we’re about the music."

Deli: What’s next for U.S. Royalty after the record is released?

JT: "We’re working on plans to play a lot of live shows. We’ve gone back out to LA to write more songs with Alex Goose. We’re  just trying to get a wealth of new songs written so we have something to move on to next.  We’ve already heard the album we’re about to release a lot already! We’re excited about the new stuff we’re writing as well as not having to make people wait as long for the next release.  We may be releasing a song here and there or even a new EP."

Mirrors is scheduled to be released on January 25th.  You can catch the band at Rock and Roll Hotel this Saturday, January 22.  Doors open at 8:30.






U.S. Royalty