Interview: Jon Haber of DEC3
Inspirational quotations such as “do what you love” or “it’s never too late to be who you might have been” can be found everywhere: in books, on plaques, and especially on social media. But how many people actually live by those words? Jon Haber is proof that those quotations are not a cliché.
Haber has decided to return to being the guitarist in a band after 25 years of taking a break. He is demonstrating that it truly is never too late to follow your dreams.
Haber stepped away from performing to open his successful New York instrument retail chain, Alto Music. The project blossomed into what would eventually become DEC3 when Haber began gathering songs that he had written throughout the years, and got a hankering to record them. A whole batch of new tunes were born, resulting in the release of DEC3’s debut self-titled album on September 30.
Here, Haber talks about those songs, with range in subject matter from Syria to Facebook.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): You put your own music on hold when you were 24 years old to open your music store, Alto Music. Now 25 years later, you’re about to release your first album with DEC3. Explain how the album and the band all came to be.
Jon Haber: Well, I put an album out in the ’80s with a band I was in back then so even though I stopped playing in a band, I was always writing all these years. I had some songs that were used in TV shows and had some success. I had this song at Atlantic Records for a while for a band, so I had some things happening. I’m obviously running a decent size business here so there was only so much time I was focused on that, but I was always writing even though I wasn’t playing.
I just said one day that I’m going to do this because I have a lot of songs. In the beginning of 2013, I said, “Alright, I’m going to do this for real now. I’m going to start getting the songs that I’d written and start properly producing them so they’d be considered an album and not a demo.” I started diving into that in February of 2013. I figured that I had all these great songs, ones that I really like and thought that people will like them, too. I went about getting that together and as I started doing it, I started writing and I became very prolific. So most of the songs on the record are new ones – eight of the 12 are new ones that I’d written – one of them as recently as July, just six weeks ago, actually. I had written this song that I thought would be a great album opener so we rushed recorded that and put it on. It’s the first song on the record, and that’s how it started.
One thing led to another and then I figured I could play all the instruments. All the guitars, the bass, the keyboards, and produce everything. Chris Saulpaugh, my singer, I’ve been working with him for the last 17 years on all the stuff I write. He’s sung all of it and he’s great so I had him. I needed a drummer so I got this guy, Mike Kalajian, who I know from around here. He’s a great drummer and he’s also a great guitar player. He owns a studio so I figured we could do the drum tracks at his place. He helped edit everything and really helped mix some of the stuff as well. So then it became, what do you call this? [Laughs] I didn’t want it to be just me so that’s how the band came about and now we’re five members. We’ve added two other guys over the last few months so if we have to play live, we can pull off that sound.
Songfacts: You just mentioned that you’ve been writing over the years and eight of the 12 tracks on the album are new. How did you decide which ones made the cut?
Jon: Well, I had a whole bunch. It would have been a totally different record when I started out. I started writing some songs that I thought were just great and fresh, and so I go, “Let me record these.” There are still plenty of other songs that I didn’t release that maybe I’ll do something with in the future. The new songs that I wrote, I just thought that were better songs that would make a better record so that’s how I choose them. Four of the ones that I had were still re-done. I re-tracked the guitars, the drums, and the vocals where needed.
Songfacts: Most of the songs started out by being written on a Martin Sigma guitar.
Jon: Yeah, I record with a Taylor but I have this knock-around guitar that I’ve had forever. It’s always around so if I’m sitting on the couch that guitar is always there. Most songs start on an acoustic, so basically the chord changes and the melody. I won’t write a song any other way. All the stuff has to start with the melody. I don’t really write off of a beat or a lyric. It’s generally the melody and the chord changes. I try not to always use standard chord changes, so if you listen throughout the album, it’s not your common changes. There are a lot of Beatle-esque changes in there and I don’t use your standard major and minor chords. I like to make it interesting. I write some stuff on piano but the vast majority is on an acoustic guitar. That’s why a lot of the songs have acoustic in it, even though you can hear heavier or electric ones as well.
Songfacts: “Put Some South in Your Mouth,” you just mentioned it was the last song added and it’s the first song on the album. It has some sexually suggestive lyrics. Just explain why you wanted to start the album that way.
Jon: The album was finished. It was mastered and then I teamed up with Carol Kaye [from Kayos Productions.] She started working with me. They wanted the album to come out at the end of September. The album was mastered in April. It was finished.
I was out jogging. I ran by a rib joint on the other side of the street and that was their slogan, “Put some South in your mouth.” I thought, “That’s an amazing song title.” So I ran back to my apartment and I wrote this song. I pretty much became the song. And this was recently, I think maybe in May I started writing it. It’s a riff song. It’s fast. It’s upbeat. It just kicks ass and that’s a great way to open the record.
As far as all the double entendres in there, after I wrote the song, I realized that there are about two or three other songs with the same title. What’s funny is that they all are the first song on the record, which I found unusual. Everyone starts the record like that, but they’re all about putting food in your mouth and eating your mother’s potatoes. There’s so many double entendres you can use in that title and I decided to go that route.
On Tuesday [September 23], we’re doing a video for that song – a big production with dancers and the band playing live in a club with about a hundred people. It should be a lot of fun if we can pull it off [laughs].
I try to leave a little to the imagination there but I guess you picked up on it. What can I tell ya? It’s a good title, though [laughs].
Songfacts: It’s going to be your second single then?
Jon: Yeah, that will be the next single. It’s hard to choose because the album is diverse and a lot of songs target different markets. “In Front of You” is a real pop song and that’s totally different than “Put Some South in Your Mouth,” but that’s going to be the next single.
We used “Red Line” because I was on television last month. I got interviewed on Fox about that song. We were going to play live as a band but then they couldn’t accommodate that because they were having a live concert series outside so I needed a video. So that’s why “Red Line” was the first one. I probably wouldn’t have made that the first one but I love the song. It’s a great song so I’m happy to do it, but I wouldn’t have necessarily picked that as the first single.
Songfacts: Let’s talk about “Red Line.” It’s a song about the war in Syria that is from the perspective of a civilian who’s caught up in the massacre. The title is taken from a quotation from President Barack Obama and the middle and ending of the song features sound bites from him. Why did you want to write a song about that specific war?
Jon: It just came to me. I wrote the song last year. It was written almost a year ago. Maybe last August? So it’s a song written at a moment in time. You see what’s going on there now, right? We’re about to go in there. We’re now going into Syria. Barack Obama just made that announcement last week, and I wrote the song last year.
It’s basically about the outrage that someone can use chemical weapons on their own people, which is what the leader of Syria did. He gassed his civilians. I mean, these are women and children that are sleeping that got gassed. It’s something that happened a hundred years ago in World War I. It’s pretty much been banned the use of these weapons.
So I put myself in the shoes of a civilian living there who’s going through all this craziness. Now with a little cherry on top with chemical weapons being used, besides all the fighting that was already happening. We said we were going to do something and we didn’t do anything. The one last hope that someone had over there at that time was that somebody was going to come and help get them out of this dictator’s grip. And then nothing happened so that’s the whole thing, “What’s a red line mean to me?” I was watching the news and it just came to me.
Songfacts: You’ve said numerous times that “Red Line” is not about politics but that it has a more humanitarian theme. Does it bother you that people categorize it as a political song?
Jon: It doesn’t bother me. It’s certainly something open for discussion. When I wrote this song, recorded it, and it was mixed, no one was paying attention to the situation over there. If you look at that song from today, it has a whole other meaning because we are now going in there. So maybe if we would have done something last year the problem that we have now wouldn’t be nearly as great as it is because what’s about to happen is not easy.
Putting politics aside, everybody on both sides would say this is a rather delicate issue what’s happening here. We’re about to go in when we really don’t know what’s going to happen and because we did nothing a year ago. Had we done something a year ago we would not – I don’t think, personally, but that doesn’t mean I’m right – we wouldn’t have to deal with the worst situation now.
So does it bother me? No, it doesn’t bother me. People write songs. Neil Young wrote songs about Kent State. Go back to the ’60s and ’70s and people were always writing songs like this one. You may not hear necessarily that someone on the Left is being criticized in the song. I don’t think that comes up a lot. The Syrian guy in the song is upset with President Obama. Typically, music that was written, it would be somebody on the other side that they’re upset with. If you look back, it’s a little unusual in that regard. I don’t mind it, though. People can read into it all they want. The fact is that most people, I don’t even know if they know what I’m talking about in a lot of the cases [laughs]. I certainly have that comment said to me as well. They didn’t catch the whole lyrical meaning behind it on the first or second listen.
The song as a song, I’m really proud of it – the middle section with The Beach Boys harmonies coming in – I think it’s a unique song musically putting lyrics aside.
Songfacts: What was the songwriting process for it?
Jon: I had that chorus [imitating guitar riff]. I had this cool little thing. Whenever I have an idea, I put it in my iPhone because the acoustic guitar and my iPhone are always around. I think I wrote that riff in 2010. It was a little snippet that I had.
First of all, I thought the title “Red Line” would be a great title for a song. All I had to do was watch the news from day-to-day over the course of a couple of days. There’s a lot of material out there in order to write these lyrics. Just by watching and following the news, I was able to weave a story out of what I was seeing. I wrote it on a weekend pretty much the entire thing. I had the whole idea from the middle. I laid down an acoustic guitar part to a click track. Three days later, I recorded that with my drummer – I just laid down a rough guitar part that they could play along to.
The only song on the album that I didn’t play bass on was “Red Line.” This guy, Zach Cooper, who’s in Coheed and Cambria – he’s out touring with them – he played bass on that song. He’s someone we know because he used to be in a band with my drummer. My drummer mentioned to me that he was in town so we went in on a Tuesday and just put it down. I tightened up just a few of those riffs in the chorus. They all vary a little bit note and syncopation-wise. We worked that out and then I came home and finished all my guitar parts. The last thing we did, I don’t know if you noticed in the middle section where all those harmonies are but there’s a cool piano part. It’s like a Bach fugue, which I wanted specifically something in that style juxtaposed against the rest of the music. It was played by Shane Keister who’s in Five for Fighting. He plays on a lot of the big hits that they had and he played the piano for that song. He put the tracks down in Nashville and then sent them back to me.
Songfacts: “Black Kid on a Pink Bike” seems to be a socially conscious song too. What’s the story behind that one?
Jon: That would be the total opposite of “Red Line.” I actually wrote them in the same week or in a ten-day time period. That’s another one that I had the chord changes for the verses in my phone. I’m in the city a lot now. The area where I hang out, it seems like almost half of the people are gay there. I just got this idea. I saw a black guy on a pink bike. I was walking down the street and go, “That will be a great song title.” So I came up with a story of a gay, black person and maybe some of the challenges they would face growing up.
The story’s a hypothetical one taken from just things you hear. He was misunderstood. He had a lot of challenges growing up. Finally, he gets out of the small town where he grew up and moves to the big city where there are a lot of other people like him. He’s more at home but you still have your challenges. Life just has challenges. If it’s not one thing it may be something else. I just made up a story and it’s gotten a good response.
Songfacts: “We’re All Friends” describes the social media obsessed generation well.
Jon: Yeah, that’s Facebook. That song’s about Facebook.
Songfacts: Why did you want to write a song about that topic?
Jon: It just gave us something to write about. I wanted to come up with something a little bit different than these straight love songs all the time. The guy singing the song, how it starts in the first verse, he’s just going through his mundane life: waking up, brushing his teeth, all this stuff, and then he has to write about it on Facebook. Who cares? We’ve all seen this type of stuff on Facebook. I made the song kind of humorous, tongue-in-cheek, but really sarcastic. He’s making fun of everybody in the song but he’s the same as everybody else. So the song is a total sarcastic play on Facebook about the mundane things that peoples write, but he does the same thing as everybody else. The first verse is about him, the second verse is about a guy who’s posting pictures of his food when he’s out on a date, and then the bridge is about this guy who was his friend in eighth grade gym class and he’s so glad that he gets to see him again. It’s all sarcastic. He’s the same as everybody else so it’s self-deprecating as well and that’s why it works. He’s not better than anybody else in the song. He is everybody else.
Songfacts: “Simple Mess” is a heart-wrenching ballad that features a lot of piano.
Jon: That’s Shane Keister again playing that as well.
Songfacts: Yeah, what was the process for writing that one?
Jon: It was totally written on an acoustic guitar. In fact, when I went to record it, I just played through it on an acoustic guitar and that’s the actual guitar that’s on the record. I never re-did it. I just played it through one time. Probably the only thing I played without having to pop something in to fix a mistake [laughs].
The song’s about a guy who loses his girlfriend or wife and falls in love with somebody else but she’s married.
The recording of it started with the acoustic and then I did all the electric. I played the bass. I put the drums on Mike and then Shane in Nashville did the piano.
We’re getting a great response for that one. It’s kind of a sleeper song in the middle of the record but people seem to really like it.
Songfacts: “Sunshine” sounds like a summer jam type of song. Explain the songwriting process for that one.
Jon: It’s one of the older ones that made the cut. I was sitting out in the sun on my deck. I think I wrote that maybe in 2000? That song is quite old. It was written on an acoustic guitar. I had a demo of the song, which I did a long time ago. It was one of the ones that when I started this project I said that I was going to re-do. Chris Saulpaugh’s vocals for the most part, we re-did maybe five or six lines, but he sung that way back in 2000. We popped in six vocal lines that I changed a few things lyrically but you can’t even tell [laughs]. I know which ones they are but you have to give big kudos to Chris that his voice still sounds the same. We did that on a few songs. Some songs there are two or three lines that we just had to pop in for lyrical reasons. I love “Sunshine” because it has a lot of harmonies. Chris did all those vocals.
It’s a straight-ahead love song but I’m about to work on a lyric video that’s going to have a different meaning. The sunshine is going to have a different connotation to it. Everybody has their thing that helps them get through the day, be it religion, drugs, booze, or yoga. But, of all the things, the best thing is just love. That’s really the meaning of it.
Songfacts: What’s the story behind “4 Small Black and White Pictures of You?”
Jon: That song is another old one. I wrote that in ’98. When I was a kid, when I would go to the carnival or to a boardwalk, they had these little photo booths. Maybe they still have them around. You go in, sit there, and take pictures. They would come out in strips of four. You would go in there with your girlfriend or your sister or brother and you would take these pictures. You smile and make goofy faces. When you left, you would pull out this strip of four pictures and they were in black and white. It was the standard machine that was out there so “4 Small Black and White Pictures of You” refers to those photo machines, and specifically that you get four black and white photos in a strip.
The song is strong lyrically. It could lyrically be the best one on the record. The guy is looking at these pictures and that’s how the song starts. He remembers taking these pictures and as the song goes on he misses the girl that he was with but what he really misses the most is how he used to be. He talks about the pictures but it’s really not the relationship. He wishes he could be that free spirit again or be like that person he sees in those pictures. I had a picture that I’d taken when I was a kid like that when I was maybe 14 or 15 that I remembered, and that’s what inspired the song.
Songfacts: And what inspired “Free My Love”?
Jon: It’s the first song Chris and I did together in 1997, but it had a different title and lyrics. It’s an old song that’s obviously been totally re-done for this record. I think maybe a guitar solo and a couple of little parts were kept from the original. I kept changing lyrics because I had different titles and I wasn’t happy with the words.
It’s kind of a dark song. Basically, the guy had two loves in his life: his girl and then drugs or alcohol. The guy’s in jail and that’s the imagery I’m trying to portray. He made the wrong choice [laughs] out of his loves and the song is that he would still make that same choice again. The lyrics in that one, I kept changing over the years. It had a second verse that bugged me so I just re-wrote a lot of those recently. Maybe seven months ago we finished that off.
Songfacts: You tend to refine your lyrics a great deal by constantly re-writing them. You were just talking about that in “Free My Love.” What’s your favorite lyric on the album and why?
Jon: That’s a great question. [Long pause] If I had to choose lyrics as far as meaning and depth, “4 Small Black and White Pictures of You” is probably the best lyric because it’s deep and the imagery that’s in there. He’s really talking about himself but it’s conveyed in a way that you think he’s talking about a lost relationship.
My personal favourite song is “Wouldn’t Last.” It’s funny because you didn’t even bring that one up. Everybody has different tastes, though. That’s real drama. You know the pleasure points you have when you hear something and you go, “Wow!” That song has it the most for me.
Songfacts: Why is it your favorite song?
Jon: The chord changes are great and they go in different places. The segue between parts and the production. It starts mellow and it just builds. It gets kind of crazy and it comes back down. I like the lyrics in that one, too.
Songfacts: What inspired it?
Jon: That song is about someone dying close to you. A lot of songs that get written like that, the lyrics are always, “You live on in your memory. You’re still here.” That’s the general theme. This song’s written like, “I’m just pissed that I’m losing you and everything in my life that I don’t care about is still here. They don’t go away. The one thing I really care about is the person I’m losing and that’s going away.” There were a lot of people close to me that had people close to them dying and it gave me an idea about how to write that song. In the second verse, it really says what it’s about and that’s how you know. By the end of the song, he has a daughter with this person so that’s the one thing that’s keeping him going during the breakdown. It says, “The little girl with your face who now holds my hand,” so that’s what that means.
Songfacts: You’re a member of the Board of Directors for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). Explain a bit about what you do there.
Jon: NAMM is a non-profit group. The whole mission of this group is to further music education to get more people playing music. The board is consisted of people who own music stores and people who own companies that make musical instruments. So it’s all people who are in the music field in some capacity as far as the music making end of it. We provide funding for different organizations, for example, impoverished school districts. If they don’t have money for instruments, we give them money to help get them. It’s just to make the world a better place. We go to Washington every year to lobby Congress to make sure music is a mandatory subject in schools so the kids get the funding for music education. It’s been a cool experience and a lot of people have fun.
Songfacts: Why are you so passionate about music education?
Jon: It’s so hard. When I was a kid, there were far less distractions in life. For kids now, with computers and video games, it’s so easy not to play music because there are so many other things you can get instant gratification from. Music, you have to sit down and look at it. What kind of a place would the world be without music? I think it’s important as a society that we nurture music, arts, and other things that make the world a better place. If we can’t nurture that, what are we?
Songfacts: So last question, do you intend on leaving your music store to focus on your music full-time or are you going to juggle both from now on?
Jon: I’m going to juggle. Thanks to technology, I can take the time to make more music, which the band I put together, we’re rehearsing every week now. We started tracking songs for our next project so we’re trying to make stuff happen. It’s something I really love to do and I think I’m good at it. It’s a crime not to do something that you can do. I think we have something to add for people who like the music. It’s a crime not to do it.