Robert Ellis - An Interview - OurVinyl

Robert Ellis – An Interview

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Robert Ellis takes a shot of whiskey and then jumps up and down. “Are you ready to go play a show?” He asks his band-mates sitting around the green room who all nod an affirmative. He confesses he always gets this nervous energy right before he goes on. But this nervous energy doesn’t come from opening night—this is the last night of a month long tour he undertook with Austin indie favorites Wild Child. Just before he hit the stage for one last show on the tour, Robert sat down with me to discuss the recording of his latest album, ‘The Lights from the Chemical Plant,’ the most memorable moment from the current tour, his emo past and his passion for vinyl.

Robert Ellis Chemical PlantJarad Matula: Can you talk about the process of making this record, and how it differed from your previous album, ‘Photographs?’

Robert Ellis: We worked with a producer, Jacquire King, in Nashville. It was the first time I worked with a producer, so there were a lot more democratic decisions. Having someone to bounce ideas off of and having someone to defend my decisions to was the most important part. What I really didn’t understand until I made this record was that I might be attached to some guitar part or lyric and if I really thought it was great I’d have to explain it. The act of explaining it sometimes would be enough to make me realize, “oh this is totally trivial.” If I can’t defend it, maybe it shouldn’t be here.

But when it was on decisions where Jacquire didn’t like something, and I felt strongly that it had to stay, it solidified what I knew was important about it. That was a huge thing, checking every decision we made and being really methodical. Plus the budget was way bigger on this record, so I wasn’t trying to nickel and dime studio time and take shortcuts—not that we took a lot of shortcuts on ‘Photographs,’ but [previously] it was very much me and the engineer as mad scientists sitting in a room, all hours of the night, trying to make a record. This was a much more focused process. We had two weeks of pre-production, just to discuss the arrangement of songs. We into the studio this time with a specific day-by-day game plan, which is just a different way of making records and I wouldn’t go back, now that I’ve made one this way. It’s nice to have some real focus.

This was also super band-oriented. The band played on most of the basic tracking. A couple of the songs I did by myself with Jacquire but then they overdubbed on them, so I felt like there were five individual personalities in a room all speaking with their own voices, which is always going to be more interesting than one person trying to play the part of five different people. There were so many times I’d think, “woah, I never would have fucking played that, but it’s the perfect thing.”

JM: Some of the songs, like “Good Intentions,” have been kicking around for a while. How many songs were older and how many were written specifically for this record?

RE: Good Intentions is really the only “old” song on the album. After I finished ‘Photographs’ I wrote the song “Pride,” so that one’s pretty old. “Good Intentions” is the only one we’ve recorded before. I put that one on there [the new album] because I thought it’d be a fun, simple pop song. I kinda needed that because there were a few songs around 8 minutes long! I needed to balance that out in some way. “Bottle of Wine” and “Only Lies” were finished about a month before we started recording. Some were being worked on right up to the point we went into the studio. Everything else falls in between.

JM: So the basic skeleton of every song was already there when you went in to record? Or were there things that happened during the recording process?

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RE: There wasn’t a lot of writing things that changed during the recording process. Jacquire would challenge me on some structural things. He’s really good at being able to say, “this could be a more concise statement and still have the same same effect.” Which is part of what I wanted him there for. There were a couple of songs that might have had two extra verses or extra couple of lines and he’d give me simple, yet vague challenges. On the song “Chemical Plant,” when I had first written it, it was around five and half minutes and he said, “try to make it under four minutes.” In doing that, I was way happier with the song and felt like it was a better statement, being able to pick the strongest lyrics, etc.

When I write songs I have a really clear idea melodically what’s going to happen. Like those little steel guitar parts on “Only Lies,” that’s a melodic idea I would notate and send to the guys, saying, “this is going to be the intro.” I even sometimes go so far as to write out arrangement ideas. I know when it’s supposed to be a big climactic thing or sparse. All I can really do is give the guys direction and then as players they’re going to speak with their own voices. There was a lot of stuff in the studio that couldn’t be anticipated that I think turned out to be integral to the way the record sounds.

JM: What were some of your favorite songs record in the studio, and how does that compare to what songs are your favorites to play live?

RE: It changes every day. If I had to say, it would be that my favorite songs on the record are the ones we play the least. But that’s probably because I never get to play them! [Laughs] I think “Bottle of Wine” is a killer song and I’m really proud of the lyrics but after you play a song every night it kind of loses its allure in some ways. Over the course of two years playing it those things cycle back and you start passing over songs and think, “woah why am I not playing this song?”

They were all really fun to record. The whole month we were in the studio was a whirlwind of positive vibes. Everyone was so excited. We were all waking up an hour before our alarms went off, thinking, “Fuck we gotta get in the studio and do this!” We were in the studio from nine in the morning to six or eight at night almost every day.

JM: Speaking of “Bottle of Wine,” the first time listening to it the little saxophone moment catches you off guard, but works really well. Can you talk about the genesis of adding that part to the song?

A: We recorded it at my house on the this old shitty piano I have that’s a half step out of tune and Jacquire brought some recording gear to the house, just recording vocals and piano and I really liked the vibe of that. But I left a solo section open and we had talked about it and I thought a sax would be a real cool thing. My friend Robbie Crowell, who’s a really good sax player and plays in the band Deer Tick, he’s just a killer jazz sax player so I sent him the track to play on. But I was kinda referencing some Tow Waits-y stuff. Jacquire has recorded some of those albums and we were both using him as inspiration for that song. I was hoping that would transport you to New York City in the middle of the song, into some dark club.

JM: Absolutely. Real ‘Closing Time’ kind of stuff.

robert ellis selfieRE: Actually, some of the few reviews I’ve read [of the new album], I’ve gotten some shit for that sax solo. Especially in the UK, they hate it in the UK! “Completely inappropriate sax solo,” they said. I just feel like, “fuck you, what was I supposed to put there?”

JM: Yeah, it’s not like it’s some yakkety-sax wildness. It’s morose and fits with the mood of the song. I may be a bit biased since I played the sax in high school, but I think if used tastefully, it can be a good instrument for a rock song, but so many bad songs have ruined it’s reputation.

RE: People seem to have a pretty superficial opinion of instruments in general. Not all people, but some say things like, “oh I hate the saxophone, or, I hate classical music.” It’s just such a silly thing. Or the inverse statement, “I love to go to sleep to classical music.” But it can be the most jarring, disjointed music—it’s such a wide umbrella so I think general statements like that are silly. If you’re doing something musical—I don’t care what it is, even banging on a trashcan—if it’s music it’s really cool and you’re doing something to communicate an idea. People get too dogmatic about instruments they hate, or even things they hate.

JM: You’ve been on tour for over a month. What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened while on this tour?

RE: We met Bushwick Bill, which was pretty nice [laughs]! At SxSW, that was fun. That week was a highlight this year. Other years it hasn’t been so much, but this year it had really good shows, we saw a lot of friends, and fucking Bushwick Bill! He was hanging out backstage at the Continental Club and I said to Geoffrey (Muller, bass player), “That has to be him, right? There can’t be too many guys like him!” [Laughs]

We went and talked to him and while taking pictures together he was saying, “yeah, this is going to be my backup band! I’m gonna do a record with y’all!” And people would walk by and he’d tell them, “I’m gonna do a record with them.” It’s probably never going to happen, but man that was crazy. He was telling us how he’s going to get his career going again. I wish nothing but the best for that guy.

JM: I love that you remember Bushwick Bill! That’s your Houston roots coming out there.

RE: We were literally listening to the Ghetto Boys in the van like three days before that happened. We listen to them all the time. We were all actually nervous to even talk to him. He’s amazing. I also met Willie D in Houston some time ago and it felt the same way, feeling like, “woah, this is weird but really fucking cool!”

JM: Thanks to your cousin, our mutual friend, I got to listen to some of your really old Eyes Like Lions stuff— [note: this was his rock band from his teenage years]

RE: Oh God…

JM: I was wondering if you’ve ever considered re-releasing it just for fun or try to use those ideas in any way with future material…

robert ellis instagramRE: No way. That’s like a painter trying to go back and paint like he did when he first learned to use the paintbrush, figuring out what colors were what. I don’t think any of that stuff is—there are still people at shows that yell, “Eyes Like Lions!”

JM: They’re proving their fan cred!

RE: It’s not going to happen. That stuff was terrible. I wasn’t thinking about any of the same stuff I am now. I was just a kid. Now I’m into..songwriting, which wasn’t something I was so concerned with back then. It was meandering with it’s emo-indie vibe. That stuff has such a shelf-life on it. There are some of those bands—like Promise Ring, I listened to them the other day, and thought, “this is still really good,” but the majority of them are dated in a weird way. You might have some nostalgia for it, but if you put it on, it wouldn’t be what you’d want to hear anymore.

JM: Moving back to the present, I’d just like to tell you how much I love the vinyl pressing for your latest album. Your record company did a great job with it [Note: 45RPM, 200 GRAM, gatefold sleeve, dead quiet pressing]. It’s obvious that a vinyl lover was responsible for it, so I have to ask, are you a vinyl guy? If so, what are some of your favorite records in your collection?

RE: I’m super into vinyl. Pressing it to 45, the packaging, I was very involved with all of it and that’s just stuff I really wanted. With a record that long and some songs almost eight minutes, there’s only so much you can do with the width of the grooves and depth of frequency on either side. My options were either to do a one record pressing at 33 & 1/3 RPM, and sacrifice some serious audio quality, or do it on two records at 45RPM. Doing it the 45 way, it freed up a whole lot of space to have low end be really present and sound modern in many ways. Songs like “Bottle of Wine” where there’s not a lot going on, it takes up a lot less groove space—there’s not as much frequency stuff happening. This way we were able to really separate the sides and give each track its audio due, which I really wanted to do. This guy, John Golden, who mastered it, is a super-cool, old school lacquer cutting guy. He just so smart and keen and single-minded about it as anyone can be. We just talked about the way we wanting the vinyl pressing to be and made it happen.

I have a lot of favorite records. I probably have 20 records in the van that I bought this week that I can’t wait to take home. I even carry a little shitty Crosely record player with me in my hotel rooms to listen to the vinyl I buy while on the road. I don’t know what my favorite records are, but I’ve listened my copy of [Paul Simon’s] ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ a million times, to the point where I know where all the skips happen and when I listen to it in another setting I sit there expecting to hear the skips! I ordered a really cool unopened copy of Philip Glass’s ‘Glassworks’ in pristine condition that I was really excited about.

I also remember being super-broke a couple of years ago, when Joanna Newsom’s last record, ‘Have One On Me’ came out. I really wanted it but my wife really wanted this armoire from a thrift store. It was sixty bucks, but I told her we couldn’t afford it. The next day, I went out and bought the vinyl for that album, which was around $50. She was so fucking furious with me! To this day she hates Joanna Newsom for that reason. So that’s one of the few things I will spend money that I don’t have on. They’re cumbersome and beautiful.

JM: I can certainly relate to that. Okay, final question. Have you written any songs since finishing this last album? Is there a timeline for a new record yet or are you still focused on touring this one?

RE: No timeline for a new album. I don’t press myself with writing. I do try to sit down and write every day but I don’t press myself if I don’t come up with stuff I’m immediately stoked about. There’s a couple of songs I think have potential, but I’m going to keep thinking about them. Willie Nelson, in his book, said that he talked to Ray Price when he was younger and after he had written a bunch of hits he went through this period of two years where he didn’t write anything. He remembered expressing concern to Price, wondering if he’d ever be able to write again. Price told him songwriting was a well—if you don’t let experience in life fill it back up, you have nothing write about, so he went back to playing golf and focusing on life and then songs began to come to him again. So that’s the approach I like to take. I don’t want to set any dates for when I want to have a new record out, but I’m writing all the time.

Written By Jarad Matula

OurVinyl | Associate Editor