Smile Politely

Evil Tents: A gust of night air

As a newcomer to the Champaign area, there’s a lot of music history for me to catch up on. Sure I’ve heard of a few of the big names, your HUMs, your Braids, your American Footballs and your REO Speedwagons — but that’s just scratching the surface. So when I heard that local dark-indie favorites Evil Tents were reactivating, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to founding member John Isberg. It turned out to be a fantastic entry point to a whole facet of the scene. Their web of interconnection, shared members, shared labels, or shared sets sent me off on an internet-hopping listening spree, listening to acts like Withershins, the Superior State, Tigerbeat, The Beauty Shop, Rebecca Rego & The Trainmen, Tractor Kings, Year of the Bobcat, and finally to a whole string of tracks by the Living Blue.

I knew from extensive reading on this very site that Night Air on the Midway was the Evil Tents release to check out (it placed seventh in SP’s Top 20 C-U albums 2010–2014), but even forewarned I was still blown away. Night Air has the feel of an instant classic: tight playing and production, a clear well-realized sound, and most importantly whole bevy of killer, timeless songs.

The core of the album’s ghostly sound is the interplay between Isberg’s acoustic guitar and Aron Stromberg’s sparse electric leads. The rhythm section of Nathan Westerman (drums) and Isaac Arms (bass) seamlessly complete the echo-dense, atmospheric sound. Isberg’s introspective vocals top it off, with just enough effects added to make them feel alien and distant. The completed whole puts me in the mind of a truck driving between empty cornfields as night, with the titular carnival lights flashing barely visibly on the horizon.

So take a listen to Night Air on the Midway, and then go see Evil Tents at Mike N Molly’s this Saturday. If you’ve been around here for a while, you probably know how great this is. And if you know nothing about the local scene, then this is an excellent place to start.

SP: The album has a really spacious, open sound, with a very sparse feel to the instrumentation. Was that purposeful, or did it arise naturally?

Isberg: It was definitely something that we wanted, kind of like the sound of a band about to completely fall apart. Sometimes it would, but there’s just something about playing a song and being about two seconds from total collapse that I love. I think the struggle is deciding whether to stay with this fragile sound or go muscular and go electric.

The album is kind of a trip to the carnival midway. I grew up in a town called Elburn and at the end of every summer, the carnival midway would come to town, all the rides, the lights, the sounds and chill of the night, this strange kind of place that after the weekend was gone till next year. My dad was on the ambulance service there so we usually had to stay around the carnival grounds while he was on call, riding rides, eating popcorn. Used to love that. Would hear bands across town at night from the fair out my bedroom window when we went home, maybe that’s where it came from.

SP: The title track feels like one of the warmest, most poignant on the album to me. How did that song get written?

Isberg: We jammed it out, me and Nathan, during practice so it is definitely one of those songs that has the “live jam” feel.

SP: Did a lot of the tracks come out of jamming?

Isberg: At the time, I wrote most of the songs and brought them to Nathan. Then when Isaac joined, we came up with “Come Back High” and “Night Air on the Midway”. Aron came in and added a ton of depth and space to the songs. As we progressed, we started to write more as a group. Now when we write, I feel like we write to each other’s strengths way more. Isaac is great at finding complementary parts, which is great ’cause I’d be fine hanging on a two chord song.

SP: It feels like there’s a bit of Gallic influence to the album, with the two french song titles and “Etienne”. Maybe it’s the vocal effects that remind me of Air. Am I totally off-base here?

Isberg: I love Air, Moon Safari is one of my favorite albums, lots of vocoder on that one. I don’t know about the French thing. Sometimes we’ll be rehearsing and I have to laugh and say, what the hell did I write this song for? Who knows. I have ADHD, maybe that’s it.

I think I was into Belle and Sebastian at the time and thought I would learn more French. Didn’t work out.

The vocal thing was more for the concept of the album. So the first and last tracks are without it, that’s like the carnival coming to town, they’re setting up, it’s real. The rest of it till the end is that surreal part of the carnival. The last song is kind of like leaving the carnival, the cold of night sets in and you’re back to reality, so those two bookends are the most real part of the record and where the vocals have nothing on them. At least, that’s what I was thinking at the time.

SP: There’s a snippet of recorded carnival noise at the end of the title track. Did you guys record that?

Isberg: Aron and I found a few samples and layered a few tracks over each other to capture that feel. That was actually pretty fun to do and I remember staying up late to do that with him.

SP: There’s such a sense of longing going through the album. Or like on “Bury the Knife in Your Heart”, it becomes this sort of hurtful possessiveness. And then, to me, the last track (“It’s Gonna Take a Little Bit More Than You and Me”) feels like a moment of stark, realization, that what you’ve been longing for isn’t really going to solve things.

Isberg: Yeah, I mean, that song is definitely about one specific person. I think in songs like that, you always hope that the person will see you, but life doesn’t always happen the way we want it to. And sometimes the things we wanted weren’t healthy, weren’t good for us and weren’t going to help us to be what or who we need to be.

If you love someone, you want them every day, every night, to be near them and live life with them. It’s that moment when you can’t stand it anymore and have to let them know how you feel. Maybe that’s it for me.

SP: Was the “bookend” structure of the album something you had planned on going in to the recording, or did it just kind of arise from the topic of the album?

Isberg: It came out of the writing and recording process. I think with those two songs being so bare, they fit as this way to bring you into the idea of it. Give you this slow transition into that night time space.

But yeah, I remember being a kid, riding the octopus and the tilt-a-whirl at the fair, spinning around, all the lights and all those crappy Bud Light mirrors that you could win, just wanted to inject that feel, all those times waiting to ride the rides, watching older high school couples holding hands, that chill and the promise that each night held, wanted to put that into the song, kind of take the whole record and put those feelings into one song. My friend said I was way too sentimental and I laughed and I told her, no shit, I wrote a whole record about a carnival midway.

So there’s that. I don’t know, I mean when you think about that age, being in your teens or early twenties, riding those rides at night with someone you’re into/love, their hair blowing everywhere, laughing, holding your gaze, your hand, the night chill, that stuff stays with you and I think that’s what I love to write about.

SP: What should fans expect from this Saturday’s show?

Isberg: Well, we’ve started writing new songs, we’ve got one we will be playing and one that we just wrote at rehearsal that I was pretty stoked on. I’m not sure that this will be the end of us, I think there may be more to come from this. Just feels right when you play with people you love.

Evil Tents will play at Mike N Molly’s at 8:30 p.m., Saturday, May 7th, along with Motes, the Rutabega, and Iska Dhaaf. Cover is $7.

About Nathaniel:

Nathaniel Forsythe is a writer who lives in Champaign. When camping, he always makes sure to bring one good tent for every evil one, so it pretty much evens out.

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