Music News

How Phoenix Almost Lost J.D. Stooks, Our Quintessential Hipster Singer-Songwriter

J.D. Stooks said goodbye to music.

After playing with Phoenix punk band No Gimmick for seven years and then performing as a singer-songwriter, the soft-spoken 31-year-old was ready to retire from the game. He describes his songwriting process as piecing together random thoughts and weaving them into stories, and in 2009, the ideas stopped coming.

"I didn't hear any anymore," Stooks says. "I didn't think it would come back . . . I thought it was out of my system. I didn't have any more songs to write."

So Stooks applied to law school, a surprising choice considering how calm, mild-mannered, and non-argumentative he seems. He got accepted to Phoenix School of Law, and while French and Dutch radio stations randomly continued to play Stooks' brand of acoustic Americana, he planned to trade songwriting for studying.

It took a tragedy to get Stooks inspired to write music again. In early 2010, a friend committed suicide. With little effort, the words started to come. Stooks channeled his sorrow into "By the Coin Jar," which triggered a torrent of writing that fills his third EP, Shutterbug.

"That song was the first one I laid down in one swoop," Stooks says. "I didn't even think about writing another record. Then that song came out, and I was like, 'Oh, well, I have these other ideas,' and before I knew it, I had a record sitting there."

Unlike Stooks' situation with some of his previous records, he didn't have much money for recording. He got help from friend Rob Kroehler, singer for Ladylike and touring musician for fun. (Disclosure: Kroehler also is a New Times contributor.) Kroehler says he was excited to record the EP, since he's grown to admire Stooks both musically and personally. "J.D is your typical everyman musician," Kroehler says. "He knows how to write catchy, memorable lyrics, and he has impeccable taste in his songwriting choices."

Stooks' newfound inspiration made a lot of other people in the local scene happy, too. Not only are his lyrics emotive and powerful, he has been a huge supporter of Phoenix music over the years.

"J.D. is always in attendance to support other local bands at their shows," says Ami Johnson, a local music promoter who has booked Stooks several times. "He is a loyal friend and peer to those who are active in the local scene."

As a result, his music connections are endless — Sam Means of The Format (who helped inspire the title Shutterbug) even made T-shirts for him. But when you're as down-to-earth and laid-back as Stooks, making friends is easy.

And although Stooks shuns the hipster label, he is what some would call the quintessential hipster. He rides a bike around town, furnishes his downtown Phoenix apartment with vintage pieces, has a full bookshelf, and wears cardigans.

But he's also so darn nice.

There is a lot of passion for music underneath that friendliness, though. An Arizona native, Stooks recalls falling in love with music by LL Cool J and Billy Joel and, then, acquiring a bass guitar as well as acoustic and electric guitars. By high school, he was self-taught and in a band.

Things looked like they were going well for his group No Gimmick in the early '00s. With support from a label, Stooks and the band traveled to San Diego to record the album Loss for Words with Jeff Forrest, who also worked with Blink-182.

Stooks had been listening to more indie and country music and began writing acoustic material on his own that was a big departure from the punk sounds of the band. Meanwhile, No Gimmick had some unused studio time booked with local producer Bob Hoag, so Stooks used the time to record his first solo EP, This Evening's Ashtray.

As the band's record got delayed because of personnel issues, Stooks released his EP and started to play solo shows. He left No Gimmick in 2005, and now, seven years after it was recorded, No Gimmick's Loss for Words is finally coming out. The band is scheduled to headline a show to celebrate the release of the album, on which Stooks played, on Saturday, February 26, at Chasers in Scottsdale. Though Stooks won't be playing the show, he says he'll be there to support the record and is still friends with the guys in the band. Not surprising, considering this dude is friends with just about everyone.

After he decided to focus on his solo material, Stooks made the rounds, playing venues such as Yucca Tap Room and Modified Arts. He released a second EP, Women & Gold, as well as a single called "Maker's Mark," rounding up other musicians in the scene to back him in concert. Because of the musicians' commitments (and because it's difficult to play an acoustic show in a loud bar), Stooks doesn't perform often. But he says he hopes to form a band again when he has written some rock songs.

With Shutterbug's track "Move to Portland," Stooks has the beginnings of a louder sound. The standout song is a cheeky told-you-so to everyone he has known who has left Phoenix in search of a hipper lifestyle, only to be disappointed once they leave.

"That's just a jab at all the little hipster kids," Stooks says. "'Move to Portland' is not specifically about one person — it's about 15 people I know that have packed up and moved to Portland, and their life hasn't changed. They just complain about how cold it is."

Stooks has no plans to leave Arizona anytime soon. This is where his family and friends are, and if he ever does form a band again, he shouldn't have any trouble getting support in the local music community.

"He is friends with everyone, musicians new to the scene and those that have been around for a while," says Matthew Reveles, a musician who has collaborated with Stooks for more than eight years. "Commenting on his music is difficult because it is in a league of its own."

And there is definitely more to come from Stooks. He says he already has about 10 songs half-written and might release newer material on vinyl. And though he decided law school wasn't for him, he is thankful to have music as a passion in his life.

"It's a creative output," Stooks says. "I'm a little old for the rock 'n' roll fantasy of being rich and touring the world, but I know a lot of people that lack something that's really forcing them out of bed to go do stuff. I don't have a holier-than-thou attitude — I just feel grateful I've known what I wanted to do since I was 8 years old."

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Nicki Escudero
Contact: Nicki Escudero