Music offers sweet escape for local frontman

Culture Music
SweetLeaf. Photo by Kristen Cook
SweetLeaf. Photo by Kristen Cook

Thirty-five-year-old SweetLeaf frontman and Leg-Up Program bassist Chris Jones makes one thing clear: a career in music is no easy gig.

The scuffed work boots Jones wears are a reminder that musicians are rarely ever just musicians; they are the baristas who brew your morning coffee, the store clerks who scan your groceries, or in Jones’s case, the cement estimator who calculates how much cement is needed to fill a hole. According to Jones, unless a musician is fortunate enough to sign with a record label, music is simply no longer fruitful as a primary line of employment. Luckily, making big money is not what motivates Jones’s playing. What drives him instead is the desire to have his songs heard and appreciated.

“Really, all I want out of my music is for people to enjoy it. If I get nothing out of it except for that, that’s all I can really hope for,” says Jones.

Be it as a car salesman, a head shop owner or a cement estimator, Jones has successfully juggled the responsibility of holding down simultaneous careers with his strong work ethic and high-octane artistic motor. Even his truck participates in the balancing act: a blue collar, working man’s pickup, the gritty red Toyota moonlights as a study, in which Jones writes SweetLeaf lyrics.

Jones informs me that when he isn’t writing lyrics, practicing guitar, rehearsing with his bands, or working, he is listening to music. “All day, every day,” he says. “Old bands, new bands — it’s an escape.”

I ask Jones what he is escaping from. To his credit, he does not appeal to the over wrought trope of the sad, emotionally damaged artist. “Oh, nothing in particular,” Jones says. “Just life. [Music] takes you away, you know? Like I say, I have it pretty good. I don’t need to escape from anything. I just enjoy music. It opens up your senses, opens up your mind.”

When it comes to his music career, Jones’s mentality is similar to that of any successful artist, athlete, or entrepreneur: he refuses to become complacent. “I don’t think you can ever be satisfied and still be an improving musician. I’m always pushing.”

There was a time, however, when Jones became so disenchanted with music, he was tempted to sell all his gear and quit. Or, as Jones puts it, resign himself to the life of “a working stiff.”

He was 24, still living in his hometown of Sutton, Ont., and his band had just landed a drummer — a rare commodity in the small community. “I really thought we had something going,” Jones says, before recounting how one of his bandmates unexpectedly split from the group, leaving him in a rut.

“It is the same thing that happens with [other] bands and with people [in general]. Some people just have really big egos and think that they’re going to do it all themselves. That’s what my buddy thought he was going to do, and he just quit the band after we started to make some progress . . . he just decided he was going to go solo.”

Fortunately for Jones and ska enthusiasts across B.C., he overcame his malaise and relocated to Victoria in February 2006, selling his head shop in order to finance the move. The knowledge that he would no longer have to deal with southern Ontario’s spread-out freeway system made the decision a no-brainer.

“Everything [in Victoria] is at your fingertips. When I was in [my former band] Buzz Deluxe in Toronto, one guy had to drive an hour to get to every band practice. I had to drive a half hour.”

For a few years, Jones dabbled around in various musical projects before striking gold in 2011, when he came across bassist Zack Knippel and saxophonist Jay Ramalho’s Craigslist advertisement seeking a ska singer and guitarist. Soon after, SweetLeaf, a six-piece indie/ska/reggae band, was formed.

Jones describes SweetLeaf as a bright spot in his life, and it’s not hard to imagine why: he writes all the band’s songs, he’s close with his bandmates, they recently released their debut album, Stress Leave, and the group has enjoyed a moderate amount of success, playing notable venues (like Sugar, Distrikt, and Lucky Bar) in both Victoria and Vancouver.

Jones seems thrilled to have finally found his place with SweetLeaf, which he has called his “baby,” and that runaway enthusiasm is at the center of his party-loving band. Says SweetLeaf percussionist Nick Brandle, “The guy really rocks and motivates the other band members to give it 110 per cent. We all like to get a little crazy, but he keeps us on track so the audience gets the best of SweetLeaf every time.”

Brandle also sheds light on Jones’s personality outside of the band setting. “Jones is just one of those stand-up dudes you can rely on for anything, anytime. Whether it’s a ride, jamming on the beach, a hike in the woods, or lending you liquor, to a chat on the phone — anything really — he’s there for you.”

In addition to these attributes, Jones, true to his half-Greek heritage, is known for his hospitality, throwing impromptu banquets for friends who are cross-Canada transplants like himself.

Says Brandle, “For a lot of us, our families are far away during important times of the year, especially around the winter solstice. Jones always takes the time to do what he calls ‘random turkey dinners’ and spends two days prepping a huge feast, [then] invites all the orphan islanders over for merrymaking.”

If there is a lesson to be learned from Jones’s musical career, it is this: a musician should be less concerned about “making it big” and more concerned about “making it work.” As Jones puts it, being in a band is akin to running a private business and no matter how skilled you are or how hard you hustle, unless there is a large enough market for your product (i.e. Billboard Top 40 pop music), you shouldn’t allow your hopes of becoming famous to fly too high.

Even while contending with this reality, however, Jones has managed to win over a decent-sized fan base along B.C.’s coast by focusing on the only three elements of musicianship that he — and any other musical artist — can control: constantly pressuring himself to improve, enjoying the companionship of his bandmates, and when it’s time for his scuffed work boots to step onstage, giving each show his all.