Friday, May 20, 2011
7 Questions with Ryan Groff of Elsinore
By Jon Stone - August 10, 2010
Elsinore, one of our favorite bands from Champaign-Urbana, is celebrating the release of Yes Yes Yes with Parasol Records today and we couldn't be more excited for them. Lead man Ryan Groff was nice enough to sit down and answer some questions for us about the band, his history and influences as a musician, and the music scene here in CU. We wish them all the luck we can muster!
A few weeks after I moved to C-U in the summer of 2007, I heard Elsinore play at the Urbana Corn festival. I immediately went home and hit up the internet for more info. Your MySpace page at the time had you guys listed as an alt-country band. The Elsinore I hear on Yes Yes Yes is not really what I think of when I think alt-country or Americana. Can you talk a bit about the history of the band and its sonic evolution?
Our first two years (2004-2006) we were very acoustic and very Americana/Alt-Country. This was how we started and what felt right. But, as we played in cities outside our small college town and started shaping a real vision and direction, we realized we were all ready to move into something new sonically and musically. We don't look back and scoff at our first record, Nothing for Design, because we had a lot of fun making it (thank you, Mark Rubel!) and really love how it turned out. But, since it has been our only full-length out in the world, we've been overly antsy to get Yes Yes Yes out so people don't get confused about just exactly what it is we do. We've dreaded the "Bob Dylan in '66" response. (Ha!) We loved Ryan Adams and the early Shins records, and that seemed to saturate the songwriting and arrangement processes. But, I started realizing that my lifelong love of The Beatles and new-found love of Radiohead were carving me into a different kind of songwriter. I wasn't feeling acoustic guitars and shuffle beats anymore. Instead my pedal board grew and grew, and we just turned everything up until it crackled a little. We'd electrified our sound and that naturally took us in the direction we are now, which gets called "pop", "space-rock", "art rock", etc. And this music is what feels right. When comparisons to Death Cab for Cutie or Queen or Radiohead or Arcade Fire happen we smile and nod in agreement.
Being from the Midwest is a theme that creeps into Elsinore’s music from time to time. What are the benefits and draw-backs of being from a place like Champaign-Urbana?
Champaign-Urbana is an ideal community to live in for what we're doing. It's not so small that you feel like there's not enough happening musically or just culturally, but it's not the gigantor that Chicago, L.A., & New York are. When we're in New York I feel like we'd be so unhappy if we lived there. Sure, EVERY band seems to be from Brooklyn right now and we love most of them, so something is right in that creative next right now. But, I'd rather stop in and play a few times a year, see our friends, sleep on their couches and floors, and then talk about how good it was once we're home in Illinois sitting in my giant backyard while paying an affordable mortgage on a house I love... a house with a full basement where we don't pay rent to rehearse and record. And I don't mean that as a negative to city-dwellers. I just love being in the Midwest and having a lot of space when I'm home. CU gives us everything we need, and we're in the middle of the Midwest triangle of St. Louis, Chicago, and Indianapolis. It's PERFECT!
What is the music community here like?
I've loved the feeling of Champaign-Urbana since I was a kid and would come up here from Charleston with my family. Maybe the Super Computer has laced the infrastructure of these cities with something magnetic and supernatural, or maybe it's just the perfect combination of cornfields, a clean water supply, and a mini-metropolis that keeps things spinning here. Whatever's happening is so good, especially for the music scene. There are always the student bands that come and go as U of I waxes and wanes, but there's a permanent slice of the population that makes great music. And the people who live here go see, hear, and support original music, and when you put those two things together you have a flourishing music scene. Besides all of the hard-working bands, we have entities like Exile on Main St., Parasol Records, Pygmalion Music Festival, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Indi Go Gallery, Polyvinyl Records, Undertow Music Collective, The Shadowboxer Collective, Seth Fein, Ward Gollings, and a music-supporting press made up of SmilePolitely.com, Buzz (The Daily Illini), and The News-Gazette. And something small and seemingly inconsequential, but something that I think is the sign of any good music community: when you hang posters in this town they STAY UP! So, you're not just wasting paper and time by flyering for your shows.
One of the most striking elements of Elsinore, Ryan, is your voice. The new record has some really amazing vocal layering and harmonies. Do you remember the first time you sang for an audience? What’s the legacy there? Who are your influences?
I remember being in fifth grade and being asked to sing in front of a gym full students and their parents. I was freaked out and didn't let my family come, but I remember it going well. But, it obviously took its toll because I didn't sing again until I was 17 and a junior in high school. That's when I started singing and playing the guitar, and shortly after started songwriting. And that's when it overtook me. I knew right away that I was supposed to sing and play in front of people. I feel like I'm physically and mentally built to do this because I have a huge mouth and a huge lung capacity, and I'm pretty obsessive compulsive. So, all the elements are there! Ha. Like I said earlier, I've listened to The Beatles my entire life, so I've always had great voices and great harmonies in my ears. (I can't wait to put my future son or daughter to sleep with The White Album every night.) The singers who inspire & influence me the most are, like I said, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, & George Harrison (sorry Ringo...you're a hack), but also Thom Yorke, Andrew Bird, Annie Clark, Feist, Ben Gibbard, Freddie Mercury, and David Bowie. These are the voices that feel real and unique. These are the ones that do it.
Elsinore’s songs—especially those on Yes Yes Yes—often unfold as a kind of fractured narratives. Sometimes we get intimate details without a ton of back-story and sometimes it seems to be the opposite. Tell us a little about your songwriting process. What elements need to be there before you think, yeah, this might just work?
I'm always battling with myself to write good lyrics. I constantly sing parodies of my songs and other people's songs with horrible lyrics both to flush out the bad ideas and to remind my wife why she married me. Usually, a single phrase will pop its head out and I'll run with it into the chord creating process. So, I guess you can say I let that tiny bit of lyrics push me in a musical direction. Then, I'll struggle and fight and push to write the words that fit with what the music is doing. Chord progressions, harmonies, and arranging always come pretty quickly. I've always been able to find good hooks. It's putting the right words to those hooks that hold me up. I can never, never-ever write a poem or chunk of lyics and then put the music to it. I try all the time, but I just don't work that way. I write a lot about our bodies and what makes us keep living and how it all works (and doesn't work). I've always been comfortable with talking about my family and our function/dysfunction. Alcoholism, tons of divorce, mental illness, and unconditional love give you a lot to write about.
It’s easy to feel the love for Elsinore at a show in C-U, but being a working band mean being a touring band. What’s it like out on the road? Do you have any favorite venues or towns to play in? What do you guys do to stay sane?
Being on the road sometimes feels like that bad dream you have about being naked at the grocery store in the fruit section. Some nights in some cities can be the best shows you have all year...or the worst. We've been touring outside of Illinois for three years and I still haven't seen a pattern. St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis, Memphis, Jamestown, NY, Hamden, CT, New York City/Brooklyn, & New Orleans have given us the kind of nights that remind us that this is what we're supposed to be doing. Sometimes it's a Tuesday in February and we're in Charleston, South Carolina and everything is hitting just right. The seventeen people who are there are loving every second and all on their phones texting their friends about this band they're watching...and then twenty more people show up halfway through the set and they all buy something when we're done with our set. And then sometimes it will be a Friday in Philadelphia or Boston and the show just ISN'T working. Maybe the local band didn't promote or doesn't draw well, or maybe the show promoter dropped the ball and six people are there and couldn't care less about what bands are playing...but still paid the $8 cover. It's weird. But, touring overall is what we love doing and we know we have to do it if we expect to "do something" in this business. So, we puff up our chests and go to work. And we always have stacks of good books and DVDs in the van to help glue it all together.
I have to ask about your name. I’m a big fan of the movie Strange Brew where the brewery/company Bob and Doug go to work at is called Elsinore. I’m guessing, however, that the story that Strange Brew is loosely based on is also where your name comes from [Hamlet]. What’s in a name?
The history of the name is simple. There's a farm outside of Charleston where I grew up called Elsinore Farm. When I was in college and just starting to seriously write songs I put "Elsinore" into a song called "Vampire in My Town", which was my first real poetically political song(it was about George W's ridiculous rise to power). Then, we formed the band and the name made sense the way Wilco makes sense. It's a name instead of sounding like a sports team or an obscure reference to some Hemingway novel. It fit six years ago and somehow has stuck the whole time. Plus, "Kathleen Turner Overdrive" was already taken.