Jonathon Millionaire tracks their path to financial success

Big swings and rich history enliven the rock band’s latest album.
The four members of Jonathon Millionaire perform live on a large stage. From Left to Right: Grant Charles playing guitar, Craig Hoffman playing drums, Lawrence Gann playing guitar and singing, and Ben Strohbeen playing bass. All four members are in formal attire.
Jonathon Millionaire perform live. Photo by Carlos Guzman / MOD Media.

Big swings and rich history enliven the rock band’s latest album.

Jonathon Millionaire’s first releases—”Chrysalis” and Unlimited Growth Potential—initially came in 2022 and immediately sparked interest. Both showcase the band’s distinct blend of genres, ability to take creative structural swings, and a penchant for making their more abrasive tendencies come across as accessible. Unlimited Growth Potential has since been taken down, but the band made sure that the loss of that eight-track album didn’t sting too much. In January, Jonathon Millionaire—made up of guitarist/vocalist Lawrence Gann, guitarist Grant Charles, bassist Ben Strohbeen, and drummer Craig Hoffmann—released the Team Building Exercise EP.

Team Building Exercise expanded the band’s stylistic scope and furthered a sense of momentum. Only 90s Kids Remember Rick And Morty Lo-Fi Beats To Study And Relax To 1080p Bdrip Barely Legal FYP, the band’s ensuing full-length, was released in July.

Incredible title aside, the album was a culmination of the band’s early momentum and the growing chemistry among its personnel. Gann had originally started Jonathon Millionaire as a solo project before enlisting a short roster of familiar collaborators with an extensive, intertwining history of shared projects, including work with Labrador (in which Gann played drums), The Boujee Boys, Taylor Bourgeois, Big Bills, The North Code, and Them Grant Charles Boys.

All of that familiarity comes to a head on Only 90s Kids, which the band recorded themselves at their own rehearsal space on Madison’s south side, which seems to go by a number of names (“Lawrence Labs,” “Millionaire Mansion,” and, simply, “our janky rehearsal space” among them). Various members of the band admitted the process was a learning experience that allowed them to hone the studio’s capabilities and Gann’s mixing and mastering skills. That DIY ethos runs throughout the determined scrappiness that enlivens Only 90s Kids.

As was the case on prior releases, Jonathon Millionaire teases the boundaries of various genres, and find interesting ways to congeal strains of grunge, pop, emo, punk, and rock. And there’s a more pronounced commitment to one of the band’s ongoing bits: a sardonic meta-commentary on art-as-product, evidenced by the album title and Only 90s Kids‘ triptych of sketches. “Thank You For Calling,” the album’s short, spoken intro, tees up that commentary perfectly. A phone rings, hold music plays, and a digital voice intones “Hello. Thank you for calling Jonathon Millionaire. All of our agents are currently assisting other callers, but you are very important to us. Please enjoy this complementary music. We’ll be right with you.”

Later, the intermission track “Commercial Break” finds Gann taking on a shock-jock role, sneaking in one of the funniest moments I’ve heard on any record this year, Madison-based or not. (I won’t spoil what it is here, but it did elicit a genuine laugh.) “We’re Very Sorry” rounds out the trio in a curt seven-second offering that ends on an unnervingly ominous, but bleakly funny note. “Twentysix,” which directly follows “We’re Very Sorry,” acts as the album’s closer and benefits from the bait-and-switch setup, heightening the atmospheric dissonance to great effect.

Jonathon Millionaire has always found interesting points of tonality across every release they’ve put up. Gann’s coarse vocals immediately inject Jonathon Millionaire’s songs with a sense of gravity that can occasionally register as something more desolate, while his guitar playing betrays his background as a wildly talented drummer. Strohbeen and Hoffmann’s work as a rhythm section is grounded, but punchy, subtly emphasizing the emotional bent of Gann’s lyrical narratives without overreaching. Charles’ work as a lead guitarist lends a sense of euphoria through piercing tones and cloudbound guitar figures.

The payoff of these strengths comes not just in the form of pure musicality, but also in narrative and atmosphere. Gann and company are particularly adept at managing the relationship between tension and restraint, which also factors into that final stretch of songs.

“Song Of The Summer 2019” teases that element of tension from the outset, with Gann’s rhythm guitar and vocals creating a sense of quiet urgency in an intentionally minimalistic presentation. Structurally thoughtful and immediately engaging, Only 90s Kids‘ first true song sets a firm template for the songs that follow. There are ebbs and flows that verge on prog-rock territory—a trait that was also true for the members’ previous collaboration as Them Grant Charles Boys—but the track is grounded by Gann’s raspy, down-to-earth vocal delivery and palpable sense of white-knuckle clarity.

“A whirling dervish in search of a pattern / Why can’t you just let it be,” sings Gann at a critical moment in “Song Of The Summer 2019,” establishing a thematic bent of both acute observance and desire for balance. One of the most apparent holdovers of Team Building Exercise—apart from the four tracks that appear on both releases—is the jittery sense of nervous energy. There’s a lingering dread buried underneath a bulk of the songs on Only 90s Kids that is capable of eliciting stomach knots at critical moments. It’s an absorbing cumulative effect that strengthens as the album progresses, with the restructured order of the four tracks from Team Building Exercise amplifying that sense of stormy dissonance.

A few weeks after the release of Only 90s Kids, Jonathon Millionaire released the aptly-titled Live From The Internet. Across that record’s runtime, the band flexes their strength as a live outfit, allowing listeners another avenue of enjoyment. It’s impressive work that highlights how well the band captured their live dynamics on the self-produced Only 90s Kids, which is no mean feat. 

Tone Madison talked with the four members of Jonathon Millionaire in late July about their history, Only 90s Kids, their penchant for levity, and the creative utility of nostalgia. 

Tone Madison: How did Jonathon Millionaire officially start? And how did that progress to the band’s current iteration?

Lawrence Gann: At the beginning, it was sort of like a bedroom project of, I don’t know, wanting to write music. [I] started putting some material together. There was like a little bit of that, and then quickly [realizing] that like, this is not really going to work that well until other people, other brains, are doing it too. Because it’s really beneficial to hear a lot of things at the same time. And that’s really difficult to do if you’re one person. So I believe the first instar of this was a trio and then [we] finally talked Grant [Charles] into doing it too. Do I have that right?

Grant Charles: Yeah. I think it was probably last summer, last fall that we started. So we’ve been playing together for years and years and years. But then the pandemic hit, and we all lost our bands. And then we started doing projects together. But yeah, then it took… Lawrence basically recorded an EP by himself. And then we learned a bunch of the songs, put our twist on them. Started performing them live. And then we did another EP and [Only 90s Kids].

Tone Madison: The new album plays into an ongoing concept you’ve been developing that positions Jonathon Millionaire as a business. What attracted you to that concept and how long has it taken to develop?

Lawrence Gann: Speaking for myself, I think a lot of that stuff was a little more improvisatory than pre-planned in a lot of ways. The bit kind of writes itself. I think it’s hard to live today and not think about all the bonkers stuff that capitalism kind of manifests. It’s not a new thing to parody that, but it’s so ripe [for parody and] it’s already absurd. [So] why not just do that?

Any marketing person, I think, would tell you [to] take your biggest weakness and make it your strength. Twitter sold itself on the idea that you only get 140 characters. And so, as a person who grew up really poor and now is really embarrassed to be middle-class… the only way to do that is to pretend to make fun of it.

Tone Madison: It’s a good bit, and it does help balance some of the lyrical narratives that have skewed towards weightier subjects. Is carving out a sense of levity to achieve that balance been something that’s intentional or something that manifests more organically?

Lawrence Gann: What do you all think? I feel like everyone’s been really into the bits and into that mode.

Ben Strohbeen: I feel like the spontaneity is what I like about it. We played through all the songs a million times at this point. Listening to the record, that stuff is fresh and so, as [a band member], I love that. Lawrence didn’t tell us that halfway-through commercial bit was going on there. So getting to that was awesome. [Laughing.]

Lawrence Gann: Same with the intro, answering machine too.

Tone Madison: How long did it take Jonathon Millionaire, collectively, to start feeling like a coherent band—with different playing styles and influences—after it expanded out of its origins as a solo project?

Grant Charles: I don’t want to speak for everybody. But feeling like a band was not that big of a stretch for us, because we’ve been playing together in some form or another since 2016. Ben and I played in a band, and Ben and Craig played in a band. Then we all wound up gradually joining Labrador, which is a band that Lawrence was already playing in. When COVID hit, the four of us regrouped and we started playing country covers as Them Grant Charles boys. Three of us rent a rehearsal space.

What was new about Jonathon Millionaire is working on original material, and specifically on Lawrence’s original material. So, Lawrence, those lyrics and chords, those are all yours and we’re just fleshing out the arrangements. I don’t know. It feels like when one of us runs with something, the next one picks it up and then the other one’s like, “What if we do this?” That’s kind of the same deal with the corporate synergy bullshit, too. Like, “What if we call the first EP Unlimited Growth Potential?” And the rest of the stuff has come from sort of riffing on that.

Tone Madison: Apart from Labrador, what does the tree of interconnecting bands look like for the four of you?

Grant Charles: Oh god.

Ben Strohbeen: Grant and I played with a singer-songwriter called Taylor Bourgeois back in 2016. And that went on for several years. We formed a country cover band. Actually, the first country cover band was called Big Bills. Lawrence ended up playing bass on that. Craig and I played in a band called The North Code, which [was] like a Lumineers-style country, or like, folk-rock-type band. When did Labrador start? 2016?

Lawrence Gann: Yeah, pretty close to there.

Ben Strohbeen: Oh, that’s right. Because actually, like the first show we played, it was maybe just like an iteration of Grant Charles Trio. At… Dexter’s?

Grant Charles: Was that the one we played at Sconnie Bar?

Ben Strohbeen: It was that one over by the Barrymore.

Lawrence Gann: Mr. Roberts!

Ben Strohbeen: Yeah, because that’s where I met [Lawrence] and Hannah [Baker, Labrador’s songwriter and lead vocalist].

Grant Charles: Yeah, because that was a Boujee Boys show and also Hannah and Lawrence played as Labrador.

Ben Strohbeen: Yeah, that was really a crossing-paths moment I feel like.

Lawrence Gann: RIP Mr. Roberts.

Ben Strohbeen: Is that not still there?

Lawrence Gann: I think it’s The Atwood now or something. They cleaned it up, which is a flawed premise, I think. [Laughing.]

Tone Madison: Only 90s Kids is technically your second dedicated release of 2023, after January’s Team Building Exercise EP. How much time usually passes for you between projects before a sense of creative restlessness hits?

Lawrence Gann: Speaking for myself, all but one of the EP songs is incorporated into the full-length. And I think a lot of those EP songs, I’m personally getting towards the end of wanting to play live. We still do. I think there’s a lot of good energy and they’re fun. But I’m really excited to be done recording, and resume writing. But also resume writing from his fresh place [where] I don’t have a chord progression and a bunch of words that need to be arranged.

We can start building things from scratch, which is fun, and I think on both the EP and and on Only 90s Kids, “Outer Space” was sort of the first song that, as a group, started [by way of] just making music from nothing together. And [“Outer Space”] is still one of my favorite—both stylistically and as an arrangement—things that we’ve done, and I’m excited to do more of that.

Tone Madison: So coming in from a starting point where nothing is premeditated and the songs take form via full-band jamming?

Lawrence Gann: Exactly.

Ben Strohbeen: That one and then a lot of the stuff we’ve been working on recently have been really riff-based in a way that none of the previous bands were, which is cool. I’ve been doing riffs. Bass riffs. Rock riffs. Guitar riffs. It’s been fun!

Grant Charles: All the Labrador stuff and all The Boujee Boys stuff was very much: the leader of the band brings in the songs with the lyrics and chords, and then everybody fleshes it out. 

Lawrence Gann: North Code too, right? Craig and Ben?

Ben Strohbeen: Yeah, Josh had those songs mostly written. About 90%, I’d say.

Tone Madison: So with four of the five songs from Team Building Exercise being integrated into the new album, was that always the plan? Or was incorporating those EP tracks something that made sense further down the line?

Lawrence Gann: It was like, “Well, we did five songs. So let’s keep writing stuff, and when we have enough for it to be reasonably considered an album, we’ll put it all together.” On that EP, “Yesterday” was a song that I had, like, solo-cut to add to it. And I think it works really well as an intro track. But there wasn’t a need for that kind of introductory track for a full-length. So there just wasn’t a spot to put it in. It wouldn’t make sense in that context, so that’s why it was left off.

Tone Madison: That makes sense. And before we go any further, we haveto talk about the album title: Only 90s Kids Remember Rick And Morty Lo-Fi Beats To Study And Relax To 1080p Bdrip Barely Legal FYP.

Lawrence Gann: Well, I don’t want to go on too much of a rant here, and I’ll leave it open at the end. But for me, there is something very particular about being the age that many of us are, where we got to see the Wild West internet. And then the corporatized end version of that. There was a middle point where, like, the machinery of grabbing your attention and showing you things that you might like, was not as sophisticated. Things were a little less polished and weirder. I wanted to catch that [feeling].

I remember going on BearShare and trying to download a The Who album or a Led Zeppelin album and getting Green Day songs. Because people were just putting shit up and mislabeling it. Like, “This is ‘Paint It Black’ by The Rolling Stones,” and it’s some Bowling For Soup cover or something. That was a very particular moment that I feel like never happened before that and will never happen again.

And it’s not like, “Oh, it used to be so good and now it’s bad.” It’s not like that. It’s like things were fucked-up in a specific way to a specific time. And now they’re better in some ways and worse in some ways. But I love that whole [overarching sensibility that’s specific to that time]. I wanted to catch that vibe of like: this is the torrent that you found [that makes you go] “What is this?”

Also, I think it ties really nicely into like, SEO and [marketing-speak]. It’s just this amalgamation of total horseshit where none of it means anything. Hopefully it becomes memorable as a result of all that at the same time.

Grant Charles: It’s gotta be the longest album title on Spotify, I’m honestly surprised they even let us put it up. [Laughing.] 

Lawrence Gann: Bless DistroKid.

Tone Madison: How long did the process of making Only 90s Kids take from writing to tracking? And how long did mixing and mastering run you after tracking finished?

Lawrence Gann: I think tracking was probably like six weeks. Something like that. Because we tend to get together weekly. And that was the schedule we were keeping for recording. We did a couple of weekend days. But I feel like tracking was somewhere between six weeks, maybe two months. And then, man, I don’t know. Mixing and mastering took a lot of time but in a compressed space. Out of a hat we picked, “Okay, here’s the release weekend.” And then it was like, “OK, well let’s get shows together and it’s gotta be done by this point.” So that [the album could] be scheduled for release online, sent to CD pressers, all that stuff. So I couldn’t even tell you, but fairly quick. Maybe less than a month.

Grant Charles: And we didn’t do a whole lot of messing around with the songs while we were recording. Stuff that we arranged as a band—”Genevieve,” “Outer Space,” “Silkenbound”—we locked in the arrangements when we figured out how to play them live. Then kind of recorded them as-is and made little tweaks where we needed to.

Lawrence Gann: Yeah, it’s definitely not a studio record. It would be fun, next time around I think, to do something like that. Where we’re playing with sounds and textures and really settling into the arrangement, what we can do with the soundscape. But this is very much, to Grant’s point, how [these songs are] performed. And let’s catch [that dynamic] and make it sound as good as it possibly can in that way.

Tone Madison: You all have sort of hit a point of entry when it comes to Madison’s music scene where you probably have developed a good bearing of what works here and where there are areas of potential improvement. Have you hit on anything you’d like to see improved?

Lawrence Gann: Well, I have never—and I think this makes sense because of who I am as a person—felt uncomfortable or excluded. Which is a rare thing, I think. If I were to maybe talk about “the scene,” I would say… Madison’s interesting to me because there are a lot of different kinds of music happening. But, like, nary the twain shall meet. The jazz people are rarely playing shows with the punk people, are rarely playing shows with the slowcore people. It’s kind of like, garage-punk is great, noise-rock is great. I love abrasive music. I’m glad there’s an audience for—and acceptance of—that here. [I] would love to see more multi-genre bills, personally. But at the same time, per capita, the amount of art in this city is wild. When people commit to doing stuff really well, there’s eventually an audience for it, whether it’s there at the start or not.

Tone Madison: There does tend to be an insular focus here, where specific artistic subdivisions gravitate towards their own communities. But you’re definitely not alone in the desire to see more cross-pollination when it comes to the music community here, which does often feel siloed. There seems to be a growing appetite for more variety when it comes to show booking that a lot of people don’t realize the degree or extent of.

Lawrence Gann: There’s that, too. It’s pretty self-serving to say as a pop-rock band. It’s not out of altruism that I suggest that.

Grant Charles: Put us on every single bill. [All laughing.]

Lawrence Gann: Basically, play with us! You know. Yeah.

Tone Madison: You said that you were nearing a point of tiring on playing some of the songs that migrated from the EP to the album. Are you already eyeing what’s next or are you allowing yourself time to decompress between Only 90s Kids and the next project?

Grant Charles: Well, for starters, we’re gonna do a Christmas album. I don’t know. There’s thoughts of reviving Them Grant Charles Boys with Christmas songs and calling it Them Great Christmas Boys.

Craig Hoffmann: There’s also been talks about a Coheed & Cambria Lawrence birthday set next year. [Laughing.]

Grant Charles: We haven’t quite whittled them down to exactly what we’re gonna do yet.

Ben Strohbeen: We have started writing a new [Jonathon] Millionaire song, though. We actually almost played it [at a recent show] but it’s not quite there.

Lawrence Gann: Not quite there yet.

Craig Hoffmann: Lots of projects to work on. [Laughing.] And just… jamming out on stuff as we practice. As we taper off shows into the fall. It’s how we wrote the last [songs]. It’s a good formula! 

Lawrence Gann: We won’t play Madison again until October and we’ll have a double-header the Friday the 13th weekend. Otherwise, pretty chill on shows. As Ben said, another song already in the works and hopefully just more writing. It’ll be good. 

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