Smile Politely

Interview: Ryan Groff of Elsinore

Elsinore have had a busy week so far, with a record release, radio appearances, and blowing the roof off of the Parasol Store on Tuesday night. We sat down with lead singer and guitarist Ryan Groff a few days back to discuss Yes Yes Yes, the recording process, and just about anything else we could think of.

SP: Congratulations on the album.

Ryan: Thanks!

SP: So, can you talk a little about the recording process? It was pretty extensive, right?

Ryan: Our first day was June 6th, 2007. That was when we officially started recording towards making this record, of course we wound up making the General EP, the Chemicals EP in addition to this, so it was a lot more fruitful than what we originally intended. So it wasn’t like this record ended up taking that long, it felt like it did, but we got two EPs and a record out of it, and we’ve been sitting on it for nine months. It ended up a lot more positive than what it looked like a year and a half ago.

SP: Did you go into the album with a set batch of songs? Has that changed at all over the course of recording?

Ryan: A little bit. At first we had five that we thought would be the first big chunk, and we’d kind of decide on some newer ones and keep writing a few, and it ended up out of the first five we only liked two, so one of them ended up as a track on the first EP, two of them we just scrapped, and then the General and Landlocked were the two that we kept from the very early session.

SP: I’m really glad that “Landlocked” is on the record, by the way. Love that song.

Ryan: It turned out the way that it should, and it got there quickly too. It was one of the first finished mixes, in a matter of two months it was done, so that kind of gave us hope, we’re off to a good start, Adam and Anthony had a handle on what we were trying to do, and Landlocked helped us feel that way.

SP: Where’d the recording for the album occur? All at one studio, or multiple ones?

Ryan: Adam Schmitt’s house in Urbana is where — well, honestly it was probably more 50/50, it was more at Adam’s the last year, but we did a lot up at Anthony Gravino’s studio in Chicago. It was pretty even until the last year, then we did most of the stuff down here because the drive up to Chicago got pretty lame after a while. It was nice working with two people, having two perspectives. They’re both really talented and had a handle on what we were trying to do. We told them from the start that we’re really comfortable giving them creative control. Going in, we’d heard what they’d both done like the Shipwreck EPs and their album, the bits and pieces of the Common Loon album that we’d heard at the time, and then all the Beauty Shop releases, they really won us over. So we pretty quickly hit it off in terms of our sonic ideas, what we were going for. We wanted to capture a bit of what Radiohead was doing at the time, what Elliott Smith did on Figure 8, even what Queen’s done with all the vocals, those were some of the hash marks.

SP: You guys did Queen at the Cover-Up a few years ago, right?

Ryan: Yeah, and that definitely came into the recording process, the rehearsal process, everything changed when we did Queen for the cover. We rehearsed six months to do Queen, we hadn’t started touring yet, so we had the time to rehearse it starting in September and have it ready to perform in January. That got our chops up, it got us thinking differently about songwriting and recording, just realizing what it takes to make something that sounds that good. We feel like we got a lot out of it, the record came out so much better than it would have had we not done that, and had it not taken so long. Had we not decided to wait until “Lines” felt like it was finished, it was one of the first three of four that we started tracking and then we put it aside for a year and came back to it, and then it finally came together, I think it winded up being the second to last to finish.

SP: Who performed the strings on the album?

Ryan: Actually, they’re all from U of I. Rachel and Aaron Wittrig from Mordechai in the Mirror, and then Aaron’s girlfriend Jen who also plays with Mordechai sometimes. So we brought them in for a few days, and Lines and Breathing Light just took off, so that was a big step. Being able to use our music degrees — Mark, Dave and I have music degrees. It was one of those things where we realized it was the time to do it, why else are we making such a huge record if we’re not gonna use everything we’ve got? And it turned out to be everything we needed with the horn section too, there’s no reason not to do it.

SP: Would you say this record should be heard on a big stereo or headphones?

Ryan: I would say because of the volume and the amount of big rock and roll moments, it’s definitely a big stereo record as opposed to a headphone record. I’d say my solo album is a headphone record, just due to it being quieter and more relaxed. But then again, when I think of a headphone record I think of something that has a lot going on that you might not recognize if you’re not paying attention. So it’s kind of both, there are a few tracks where you do have to listen really closely. We wanted to go deeper into the studio side of things and use an instrument that wasn’t recognizable, pull a Beatles trick or something.

SP: Any mellotron on the album?

Ryan: Yeah actually, on two of the tracks there’s mellotron. And when you put an effect on a mellotron, it just makes it even more mysterious, so there are a few moments in there that I’m really proud of that took us even further than we thought we were gonna go.

SP: Can you talk about signing to Parasol?

Ryan: Parasol was the perfect choice for us. My solo record was a great introduction for me to a small independent label. But even more so, they’ve been — not really inactive, but in a low gear for so long. And then to recently add Common Loon, You and Yourn, the 1900s, Cameron McGill, band like that who are actually touring. When I started working with them for my solo record, they said “we haven’t really worked with touring bands in a while, the 1900s are kind of our first big touring act”. And then I was doing a little bit solo touring, and even that little bit was more than 90 percent of their roster was doing. Because that’s just sort of what they’ve become — a project record label. They’re putting out people’s project records, people who had worked with them in the 90s maybe and were saying “hey, we’ve got a new record but we all have kids and families and we’re not really doing the touring thing anymore”. And a lot of the Swedish finds, Jose Gonzalez and Peter Bjorn and John, they were a good entry into the U.S. market and Parasol just happened to be the one — financially that was great, and as far as their reputation, they got two major new acts. So I feel like that was their big resurgence, they got that big shot in the arm that they needed. So when we started talking with them, we said “we would love to be the most-touring band on your label. But it’s also great that you have Common Loon, Cameron McGill, and the 1900s, and even You and Yourn, they’re doing some significant touring.” But [Parasol] were just excited that we wanted to go with them, it was like we were both so excited that we wanted to work with each other, they weren’t exactly expecting it and we weren’t expecting them to be to do too much, but they turned out to be able to do a lot more than we thought because they saw that what [Elsinore] is doing, that’s how you sell records — “so of course we wanna put your record, we’re gonna front the money and you sell albums and everything works. That’s why we had to stop doing as much in the past ten years, we weren’t working with bands that were doing all that much.” — selling 200 records does not really legitimize a project, but selling a thousand records totally does. And they started to see that with all those other bands they’d already acquired and the records they were putting out. So then with us, it’s like “you guys are what we’re looking for as a label because we need a band that’s gonna go out and do even more than what they’ve already been doing.” So that made us feel really good, and at the same time it was great to have someone who could financially back the record pressing, and all their touring and retail contacts. And we also signed on with Team Claremont for our publicity campaign, and Parasol can’t put too much money into each record, ’cause then it just won’t make sense [financially], and we totally understood that — but in talking with our manager Dan and sitting down and figuring out what we needed to do to make sure that this record was a legitimate release in our minds was to have Team Claremont service the record for radio and press. And it turns out that Parasol used to work with them ten years ago, so it was good to have that connection again. So our radio campaign is off and running, the CMJ website just added us to their radio list, I think we’ve already been added to 75-100 stations nationwide which is good…so it’s really cool to have so much happening. Everyone at Parasol realizing “this might be our first really significant release”. I think the Common Loon record and the 1900s have already done a lot of good things, but they told us right away, we’re definitely touring more than the 1900s and have a more widespread fan-base already, which made us feel good because when you’re in a band you doubt those kind of things, you think like “well when we go to these cities, it kind of…”, you’re still playing in new markets all the time. But then again, the way that Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Memphis have been going — which has been really really well — and a few places out east, like New York, Boston, Charlottesville, Charleston (South Carolina), there are a few markets that have gone really well, and that makes it easier to have an night where we play for ten people, and so we’re definitely still in that kind of world where there are always gonna be rough shows, not necessarily bad shows but shows that aren’t ideal, but the good ones are getting so much that it helps kind of level everything out. You feel like “the majority of the time we’re having a really good night, a really good time”. So it all is working towards there being some kind of name recognition, now that we’re gonna go out for this big tour. I mean touring seven weeks this fall for the release, it’s gonna be super…

SP: You have more dates to announce then?

Ryan: Yeah, we do.

SP: So right now — speaking of Chicago and Saint Louis — you’re doing four release shows? And swinging out east after that?

Ryan: Yeah, we’ll do out East for three weeks and then swing back, and most of that tour is booked, I think we’ve still got four or five at the end that need to get solidified and one or two in the middle. And then we’ll come home for Pygmalion, be home for three weeks, we’ll work and we’ll rest and just kind of recharge our batteries. Then we’ll get ready and we’ll swing back down south you know like through Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, and keep out West all the way through Arizona and then to L.A., all the way up to Seattle and then it’s sort of a big horseshoe back through the Midwest, and that will be four weeks out too.

SP: Wow!

Ryan: Yeah, it’s gonna be a lot of fun, and you know Dan, whose our manager, he’s also doing our booking right now because he feels like we’re building toward getting on maybe a larger agency, maybe someone out of Chicago or New York. Which is nice that he’s you know, so structured and has such a good plan for us since he’s officially our manager, and that’s what we’re paying him to do. But he’s also booking because he feels like the potential is there and he sees what we’re all working towards and that we’re all working really hard for it. So he can pull double duty a little bit and not feel like it’s not worth it, you know? And that means a lot too, that’s just another fanning of the flames for us…he’s working as hard as we are, he cares as much as we do and you don’t always find that…someone you can trust completely with your world, your art, your lives, and your business and everything. Yeah, so the tour is looking good and he’s doing a great job confirming things already, the routing is really solid. He’s worked closely with Seth because Dan manages Jookabox and Seth books Jookabox. So it’s good to have this kind of friend circle where Seth loves us and we love Seth and Dan and Seth know each other so they help each other with contacts and the show trades and everything, so it’s nice that the network is spreading out that way, with the people we respect the most.

SP: So, I guess to hit on a bit of controversy, the Lichtenstein thing…can you explain what happened there?

Ryan: Yeah, definitely, it was so funny, and silly, and also amazing at the same time. Because when I first approached Brittany Pyle, who did the [album] art, and she’s also done some photo shoots for us and is a video artist — she’s doing a video for us right now actually. I said “Brittany, that painting that’s on your website in your portfolio, you know the yellow pop painting, I think that would be a perfect album cover.” She was like, “that’s great!” She was so happy and excited. Then I said, “what could we talk about for licensing it and using it? She said of course, so we talked about details and we paid her a little bit of licensing money and told her a year and a half ago that this was set, this is the cover. She said it was a painting class where they were mimicking styles, that’s all she said and that’s all there really was to it. So then, I think when we first announced the finished cover on Facebook back in early May, somebody commented “oh, nice Lichtenstein” on our Facebook page, and I noticed that. And then a few days later, we got an email to our band account that said “Hi my name is Shelly Miller, I’m the intellectual property manager for the Liechtenstein estate. The cover for your new record is a variation of a Liechtenstein painting and a copyright violation, please contact us.” And I was just like, “oh god, this is ridiculous, how did she even find it?” And for two or three days I thought about it and realized she probably had Google alerts for the name Liechtenstein so when someone said ‘nice Liechtenstein’ on our Facebook page, it undoubtedly showed up. So that took the mystery out of it and kind of made me freak out a lot less because I was like “how did she find this? We just put this up today!” So, our manager said, “we talked to our artist, and she said that it was her plan to put an homage to Roy Lichtenstein’s Kiss V.” And her response was “it’s not an homage, it’s a copyright violation. Please choose a different image.” So we’re just like “OK, she doesn’t wanna work this out or have any kind of compromise, doesn’t seem to wanna license the use of this image, which we had no idea was even Lichtenstein.” So we thought we were totally defeated, it was totally done. And then I happened to go to the end of the semester photography show that Brittany had at M2 and we talking and she was like “You know, that’s a huge bummer about the Lichtenstein people contacting you guys, I don’t actually understand it because my painting is actually an appropriation of the same source material that Roy Lichtenstein used” — his whole thing was re-appropriating old comic book strips — “so I didn’t use his painting at all. That’s why this doesn’t really make sense to me.” And I’m like Brittany, this is amazing, this is the glimmer of hope that we needed to actually feel like we could stand up to these people and puff our chests up a little bit.” So, I told [Parasol owner] Geoff Merritt, and he said “What you need to is post your story, very honestly and plainly on Boing Boing, because thousands and thousands of people read it every day, send it to their editorial staff, explain everything and basically just say ‘what’s the answer? what do we do?'” So I put it up and said “this is the story, she’s a friend of ours, she told us the painting was an appropriation of the same source material that he used, and we just wanna know what the answer is.” Because we knew we’d get tons of feedback, and Geoff said “if anything, it’s just gonna get more people into your band, it’s gonna get people coming to your website.”

SP: Yeah, I saw it all over Digg and Reddit…

Ryan: Yeah, it turned out to be such a good move, and that’s why Geoff is such a smart guy, he knew we’d get some attention to band, some attention to the release no matter what happens. So it was up there, it was huge. Our website only gets thirty hits a day, and one the day that we posted it and the next day, we had 10,000 hits combined and just dozens upon dozens of comments and piece of advice. People like “here’s what I think you should do!”, and then thankfully there were a few “I’m an intellectual property lawyer, and here’s what I think”, and even two lawyers — one in St. Louis, one in Chicago — who offered to represent us pro-bono. That was like the icing on the cake, it was like not only do we have really sound advice, we have people who’d even represent us for free because they see this as kind of a landmark case, a precedent in the new copyright era, that whole thing. So that got us feeling a bit better, and a few days went by and we were thinking “when we should contact Lichtenstein’s estate again, and what do we say when we do?” We don’t really wanna go to court, but then again we were literally a day away for sending the CD and vinyl away for pressing when she emailed us in the first place, it was literally gonna be the next day, and she put us on hold for three or four days. So finally we had to make a decision, start thinking about other cover ideas — this has been the cover for a year and a half and suddenly we have a day or two to come up with a new one? All the artwork had been designed around this color scheme and Brittany’s painting was the anchor. So, after three or four days something finally happened, we got an email from the Lichtenstein estate manager saying “we feel that as long as you put ‘an homage to Roy Lichtenstein’s Kiss V‘, we’ll gladly agree to let you use it.” Which is funny because the last correspondence we’d had was like “it’s not an homage, it’s not a copyright violation.” Rawr, teeth and claws, no compromise. And then without us even emailing her back, she says that. And then she had a P.S. — “someone familiar with your album cover emailed us about the situation.” So then we have no idea which one of those dozens of people might have emailed her. It could have been one of the lawyers saying “we just wanna let you know that you don’t really have a case against this band, because it’s the same thing Lichtenstein did with his entire career.” So that must have been what happened, no one’s fessed up to it, but we’re just glad that whoever did it did. So then we decided it was time to move forward, so we sent it away for pressing, everything was set and the Boing Boing press was amazing, who knows how much PR like that is worth, just all the streams and downloads, hits, comments and people just knowing more about some band from Champaign, Illinois. Who knows how it’ll help this tour and the record release in general, having that controversy happen, it’s the positive side of no press being bad press. So that was a really interesting way to kind of kick this whole campaign off, it had already taken so long to make, so long to decide what to do, it was quick and easy to strike a deal with Parasol because it just made sense for everybody. So then we’re feeling good like “okay now, it’s just gonna slowly lift off and things are gonna go”, and then the handbrake was pulled on this whole thing. But it was a good reality check, it made us realize we’re now in the real world of the music business and these kind of things happen all the time to everybody, even Vampire Weekend is going through that thing with the model. It opened our eyes to a lot of new things and I’m glad it did, it was a big and bold step into being a career-minded band.

SP: Do you guys have anything special planned for the release shows?

Ryan: We’re going to have a seven piece horn section play on the two tracks that we had horns on the record, and then not only for the two songs on the record with strings but on three additional songs, we’ll have a string section with us too. I know that the horns will be with us in St. Louis and Chicago as well, the strings I’m not really sure about because the string section is kind of still coming together as far as personnel. That’s one of the big things we’re gonna do to step it up, and just in general we’ll just hope that what happened with the EP release and moving it [from Cowboy Monkey] to the Highdive and it going over so well, we’ll hope that’ll happen this time too. That the buzz will be there, and all the people that love Common Loon and maybe have heard of Canasta, I feel that the bill is really gonna bring a lot to mid-August in Champaign. It’s hard to think of things to make it a real release show, just in terms of going overboard and crazy, making it a real celebration. So I’ll be brainstorming ways to make it not just a normal show but also not over the top like a Flaming Lips show with people in costumes and confetti cannons. But it’s fun to think about those kind of things, just that the setlist feels right — we’re gonna be debuting three or four new songs, one’s we’ve been working on the last couple months. I think we’re gonna play the record front to back and then do a second set of new material and covers that we’ve been really excited about doing for the first time in town. So I feel really excited about it, rehearsing with the horns has been fantastic, the strings are starting to get off the ground and we just have a lot of really talented people who are so excited to play live with us. It’s not just us being excited about having these great people but they really wanna be there too.

SP: Any ideas for the new material? Are you thinking about doing another EP or are you going to avoid the studio for a while?

Ryan: I think this winter we’ll probably start recording — our manager Dan already has an idea that in November, once we get back from tour, it would maybe good to start demoing home recordings and then think about going into one of the studios around here and tracking some drums, maybe starting to lay things down for a new EP. So I would maybe early next year, we’ll try to pop out a new three to five song EP. A lot of the stuff on the record is so old to us — not that it’s outdated, but we’ve been playing the songs for so long — that we really do feel like we should get another EP out quickly, it’s easier these days, singles are coming back in this digital world we live in now. Putting out another three song EP is just as smart and waiting and waiting to put out a full record. People are releasing singles all the time now, you know? With vinyl pressings too, there’s all these incentives to put out as much material you can, as long you time it well and it’s actually good — you’re not just putting out the filler, putting out c-sides — I think it will play to our benefit. So that’s kind of the plan as far as future recordings. It would also be nice to maybe go to Europe next year, that would be really good. And just from knowing everybody in Headlights and talking to them in the past couple years about their European tours and how once you’re over there it feels easier to be there and on tour than it does in the U.S. sometimes. It’s surprising because touring the U.S. sometimes, you hit a spot where you can coast, you just feel like “wow, we’re having good shows, people are coming to see us, how could it be easier than this?” And then other nights you hit really rough spots, you hit a brick wall. So Europe would be really fantastic, that’s kind of the ambitious plan for next year. But just trying to do everything right for this record until it’s time for the new EP, to let the release shows happen, let the tour happen, and then we have three or four videos in the works, and we also have ten remixes — a few are already out, six or seven more are ready to go. So we’ve just tried to expand the whole campaign for this record across the board. Videos, remixes, having the album cover controversy was unexpected, having the publicity happening now too, there are so many thinks going on that we do feel like we’re making the right steps towards inflating this one in the right way. We’re blowing this up to be what it should be, but not anything more, we’re not trying to go overboard with it. That’s a really tough line to walk, it always felt like that, how do you not toot your own horn with something like this, with a record you’re so proud of? I think you just have to hope that the media, and that your fans and friends all like the music as much as you do. Otherwise you’re just tooting your own horn, you’re excited about a record that’s just ok.

Elsinore perform tomorrow night (Saturday) at the Canopy Club. The show costs $8 in advance or $10 at the door. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show begins at 9 p.m with supporting sets from Chicago’s Canasta and locals Common Loon.

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