It would have to feel a bit like being left at the altar—your band breaking up just moments before scheduled studio time. After months of preparation, anxiety, and anticipation—not to mention the several years of planning a future together—you’re left standing alone, staring at your empty hands, hoping no one noticed that the remainder of your union didn’t show up for the big day. But, rather than hang his head and disappear into the sunset, ON AN ON frontman Nate Eiesland grabbed best man Ryne Estwing and maid-of-honor Alissa Ricci and set off on a new adventure.
While not the most popular honeymoon spot, ON AN ON’s adventure began in a Toronto recording studio. It was time that had been booked while Eiesland, Estwing, and Ricci were still members of Scattered Trees—a group that disbanded three weeks prior to their scheduled studio time—but the trio saw it as an opportunity to create music in a much more organic, unrestricted manner. The result, the band’s debut album Give In, was an honest look at “life, love, and the commonality of loss.” The album was well-received globally, and the band has been touring essentially nonstop since its release in January.
Early on in their tour, ON AN ON stopped by Champaign for an intimate set at The Velvet Elvis, and, after two trips overseas and nearly a hundred gigs across the country, they return to Champaign to perform an afternoon set at Pygmalion on Saturday. Andrea caught up with Eiseland on the eve of the band’s first North American headlining tour to talk about their adventures so far.
Smile Politely: You guys stopped by Champaign last December and played a show at The Velvet Elvis, and now you’re coming back for Pygmalion. You seem to book a mixture of house shows with mid-sized venues and larger venues or festivals on tour. What’s it like having such a wide breadth of venues to play?
Nate Eiesland: It’s great. I mean, it’s kind of the full spectrum, too, because, if you ever were a musician as a kid, you played a lot of house shows. That’s all there is. There’s a kinetic energy that I think you can tap into when you play a house show that something that is completely unique. That’s something we love to do. Actually it’s too rare that we get to do those shows. And then contrasted to a venue where you have like a great sound system and everything is all professional—that has its luxuries as well. It’s lovely to be able to hear yourself, and you feel really good about your performance. Festivals are another story. It’s a lot of people—a ton of people—and sometimes it doesn’t feel as personal, but there’s something magical about just the magnitude of the event. They’re completely different ways to experience a performance, but to be able to have all three…I feel pretty lucky to be doing any of them.
SP: I read that your hope for 2013 was to be on the road as much as possible. Taking a look at your tour schedule, it certainly looks like you’ve accomplished that goal.
Eiesland: Definitely. We’re only two-thirds through, but we’ve definitely been on our way to accomplishing that goal. We’ve had a week off here and there—we actually just had over a month off and that was kind of crazy. You really get used to the pace of tour. You feel like you’re running at 15 miles an hour on a treadmill and you have to jump onto a treadmill that’s going four miles an hour. It takes some adjustment. It’s refreshing because you get to revert to a more normal pace. You start processing some of the things you’ve gone through or have seen when you were going a hundred miles an hour. You may be in a different place every night on tour, and you get used to that—and it’s amazing that your body can do that—you get used to only having a few hours of sleep a night, and you become alright with that. But I don’t think you really start comprehending what that means until you sort of get to become an outsider to your experience.
SP: And you can’t really become an outsider until you get back home. Where is home for the band? Are Chicago and Minneapolis both considered home at this point?
Eiesland: Ryne actually lives in Chicago and Alissa and I live in Minneapolis, so we actually have a dual citizenship that has been incredibly beneficial for us. Alissa and I grew up in Minnesota, so Minneapolis was a big deal for us. Ryne grew up outside of Chicago, so the music scene in Chicago has given us a lot…it’s a really tough ladder to climb, and so you kind of gain a thick skin if you’re realistic about it. There’s a ton of support [in Minneapolis] for the local music scene to the point where you could have a career just playing Minneapolis and never tour—which is not something ON AN ON would ever want to do, but it’s such a stark contrast. So when you get to marry the two together, you get the sense of an immense amount of support from Minneapolis, and eventually over the year we’ve gotten a lot more support in Chicago, which feels amazing. But I think most places you really need to get out of town and come back—you need to get out of town and prove yourself in a sense—to have the hometown support you would always dream of. And I think that we’re honestly being able to have some of that because we have Chicago as home and we have Minneapolis as home and this really unique scene there with a lot of really appreciative fans and we’ve been able to reap the benefits.
SP: You also did some touring overseas this summer, meanwhile, back in the states, your record was blowing up. How was it coming back after your European tour? Had your audience had changed at all?
Eiesland: In Europe we were playing more shows as headliners and you feel like you get an understanding with your audience as a headliner because you realize the majority of those people are there to see you. In the US, we’ve been really fortunate to go out on tour with a lot of bands that we really respect and are fans of, so I think in the US we’ve done more opening and less headlining which we really prefer. To be able to go around with a band who has their own draw and play to their fans and surprise them, and make new fans—that’s how you grow. So I think maybe our gauge of our own audience in the United States is a little less defined than what it is in Europe. I mean, we’ve gotten a lot of love everywhere, so we feel super fortunate, but this will be a headlining tour that we’re about to go out on, and that will be one of our first real looks at what is our actual fan base here. I’m kind of interested to see how it goes.
SP: ON AN ON is a relatively new band; have you had the experience of looking out you’re your audience and seeing people sing along?
Eiesland: That’s one of the most surreal things about playing live. Not everyone gets to experience it, so, again, we’re feeling really, really fortunate. The most surreal thing was when we were over in Europe and people were doing that—singing along, because, you know, it’s a world away. You’re on the other side of the world and all of a sudden it’s like, how do these people know these words? They know this song that is about this really personal thing that we decided to put out there into the ether, you know, and people have responded. We’ve seen a lot of people who have really spent time with the record, and that’s a real honor because to have those people at your show—usually they’re in the front and they’re singing along—and it’s sort of like this unseen support blanket. It makes you feel ok about putting yourself out there on a stage because you know that someone’s got your back and they’re right there in front of you, confirming that all along—the whole set. It’s been a really beautiful thing to see.
SP: Do you remember the first time you experienced that?
Eiesland: I don’t remember where it was but I do remember what it was like. I was really surprised and relieved at the same time. There was almost this mix of shock and relief, which is a really, really strange mix. It’s one of those moments you realize that something is happening, you know, because you focus in, and you make this record, and you’re just trying to be honest and sincere and loyal to what you think is exciting and what you’re feeling at the moment, and when you put that out, there’s no telling if anyone’s going to resonate with that, but all of a sudden, you play a show and there’s a hundred more people there than you had expected, and thirty of them know the words to the single you put out, it’s really…surreal is the word.
SP: Will there be any new material on this upcoming tour? Something people might not already know the words to?
Eiesland: It’s actually kind of interesting because there’s a song on the record—it’s the last song on the record, it’s called “I Wanted to Say More,” and it is this really drawn out, soundscape-type song that’s six or seven minutes—something you turn on and it could either put you to sleep or just sort of center you. But we never, never thought we would tackle it live, ever. This whole year we’ve been playing nine songs, and not that tenth song. So, for this tour we thought, do we learn another cover? But then we’re like, three covers, that’s a lot for a headlining tour. You go to see a band and you don’t want to sheer a huge chunk of the time that you’re watching them on someone else’s music. And so we thought, let’s try to re-approach that song and see what it would be for us to do it live. And it came together very, very naturally. It was just so quick and really satisfying to us. It’s kind of interesting because we’re doing a new song that no one’s ever seen us play live, but it’s actually a song that’s been out on a record for nine months. So there is actually a surprisingly good chance that people will sing along to the new song that we’re going play. We’ll see, though. Who knows, maybe they won’t even recognize it!
SP: Has it changed quite a bit from the original studio version?
Eiesland: I think it sounds different, but the song is definitely the same. The heart and soul of it is the same, and people will recognize it pretty quickly, but as spacey as it is on the album, it has more energy live, but there’s still a sense of a comfort in letting things be drawn out. And every night it’ll probably sound a little different, and that’s something we haven’t really done, and so that’s exciting to us, too—that this thing we’re sharing, we’ll sort of play off the crowd, and every night it will be a little different.
ON AN ON play at 2:50 p.m. on Saturday at the Highdive Outdoor Annex during Pygmalion Music Festival.