Q&A with the frontmen from rising Seattle indie bands Say Hi and Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band, Eric Elbogen and Ben Verdoes.
Eric Elbogen of Say Hi and Ben Verdoes of Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band (along with Verdoes’ teenage brother, Marshall) sat down to chat with me about music and their shared CD-release party at Neumo’s on March 6.
Ben Verdoes: I’m obsessed with promotion, ever since this band started. Even if I think the show will be well attended, I don’t actually believe it until I’m there. And even during the show. Not because I don’t think people like it, but because I’ve been in projects where we just didn’t understand it. And I just didn’t have that freedom to throw myself into it. I get really excited and I’m always thinking about it. It’s like a disease. When Tracy [Eggleston, backup singer and Ben’s wife] and I step into a room, into a show, I obsess. It’s really bizarre. Once we’re onstage I’m cool, even if there’s just 10 people there. I guess it means a lot to me, venues that we’re working with, especially locally, and the bands were playing with. It means a lot to me that we’re creating something really special. I think it speaks for the occasion if people know about it. It just prepares them. If you’re in an audience and there’s people all around you, it just helps the perception. I’ve been to shows where I’ve been one of three people in the audience and it’s been magical, but, I think that Neumo’s, to have that place full of people is just really exciting to me.
Eric Elbogen: I actually saw both of your Neumo’s shows. It was awesome.
BV: I’m spoiled because we get to play there. My goals for when I was playing here with this band is that one first show that we played. And so it’s a really special experience. We try to really do it right. We try to rehearse every day and put everything we can to promote the shows in Seattle and get to know people and have them come out.
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Jonathan Zwickel: So you both just got on board with some new labels.
EE: [To Zwickel]: I think the last time I ran into you, the Barsuk thing had just happened. It’s been really amazing to work on a record with other people, which I sort of have in the past in like hiring out for PR and radio, etc., but to actually be a part of what Barsuk is doing is kinda awesome. I still stress — like you were saying that once you’re on stage your fine. I stress — I’ll be on stage thinking like, the promoter is probably really pissed at me right now because we didn’t bring enough people and these people are probably really hating this because this song doesn’t sound as good as it does on the record, or we’re not playing the song from the first record that could never translate live. I stress about that stuff all the time. It’s a rare and exciting moment when all the pieces fall into place and there are a lot of people there and they’re enthusiastic and they’re moving and they’re not just sitting there with their arms crossed, judging. And when that happens and the stage sound is good and nobody onstage is drunk …
BV: The amp doesn’t blow up…
EE: Yeah, then finally I get past that stuff and I’m like, “All right, let’s play a rock ‘n’ roll show. This is fun.” I wish that would happen more. I’ve been working for a while on trying to make a lot of this racket fun for me again. Because I love playing music, there’s nothing I love more. But sometimes the stress of it all, for me at least, overshadows the fun part and it turns into a job. Which I hate.
JZ: So in that respect it helps being on Barsuk, having their support.
EE: It does. I’m still kind of busy as I’ve ever been with the record coming out in a few weeks. We are taking out my touring band for this tour and the release show are some people I haven’t toured with before and I’m so excited about it. They’re awesome. [To Verdoes:] David Broecker told me that he ran into you the other week.
BV: Yeah, yeah.
EE: [To Zwickel:] Do you know David Broecker?
BV: He’s in The Prom.
EE: He used to be in The Prom. And he toured with John Vanderslice for a while. And now he plays guitar for Telekinesis, that we’re taking on tour with us. So he’s doing double duty and playing bass in Say Hi for the tour.
JZ: Double duty. Sort of the economic stimulus package for the tour. So the label is still necessary in 2009?
EE: This will be the sixth Say Hi record. I did the first five on my own label. And I’m ultra proud of what I was able to do on my own. But, I don’t know, I certainly get to a point where I just kinda wanna spend time rehearsing and making the show better and writing better songs and making better records. With the distraction of everything you need to do to put out a record, it became harder and harder to do all that stuff properly. Also it’s really exciting for me to be a part of a company that’s put out so many awesome records. Everybody there, they’re all music fans. Everyone there has a giant vinyl collection and when they’re not at work working on music, they’re talking about music and new bands and it’s awesome.
JZ: And they’re in Seattle. Did you have a relationship with them before you moved here?
EE: I’ve known most of those [Barsuk] guys for a while. And embarrassingly enough, they actually became the one label I would send the new record to before I decided to put it out myself. And I guess I just wrote a batch of songs they finally liked enough to take the leap to make it happen.
JZ: You had sent them stuff previously and they were like, “Sorry, doesn’t work for us?”
EE: It wasn’t quite as systematic as that. I sort of always had a self-imposed deadline and I sent it to ’em and was like, “OK, if in three weeks they call me and they’re flipping out about the record, then we’ll talk about it. And if not … I just kept the wheels in motion and put it out myself.
JZ: And how did Dead Oceans end up happening? They’re in Texas, right?
BV: Yeah, Texas. They’re part of Secretly Canadian, which is out of Bloomington, Indiana.
It was one of those things that we started to get the idea that we wanted to put the record out at a certain time, and we don’t really wanna try to twist someone’s arm, we don’t wanna play a waiting game or dance too much with a particular label when we have one that’s really cool that totally gets it. I kind of have this theory of working with people that wanna work with you, before other people kinda catch on. It kinda shows something about their integrity. Its one of those things — we definitely thought a lot about it, but it made a lot of sense early on. Once we started talking to Dead Oceans we kind of knew in our gut that that was gonna be where we went. It’s only been reinforced since then.
EE: It’s such a great operation that they run over there.
BV: They’re really, really cool people. What they’re doing now, some of the bands, like Bon Iver is obviously having a really well-developed career, and Antony and some of the other Secretly folks. And they just signed John Vanderslice. It seems like they’re really mounting something that’s gonna be promising.
JZ: Wasn’t Vanderslice on Barsuk?
EE: We took his spot. Thanks John! [Laughs]
BV: I think you have a reputation that people are excited about, when people talk about pp that have self released and done well with it, your name comes up. Another one is maybe Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Am I correct?
EE: Yeah they did and they sold a lot more records than I did.
BV: I wouldn’t have known. I just know that the impression is, is [the label] necessary now? And I think we have this team within our band. We’re constantly working on stuff and we’re really, really involved in it, but even yet it helps to have that other group of people who are knowledgeable and have relationships and who are going to bat for you. Because there are just so many bands it could just drive you insane. I’m working on it constantly, and I work too, but like, at least three members of our band probably put in 25 hours a week on band stuff. I don’t even know if that’s counting rehearsals. We’re way into it, we love it. It’s actually really rewarding. But, at the same time, if we had to do everything, it would be too much. Obviously we’ve pushed really hard. Its like being part of a baseball franchise. There’s something about being part of a team that’s really enticing to me. And like, maybe someday you’ll get traded, or maybe you’ll retire on Dead Oceans. Or maybe — I hate the Yankees, but you know — people always wanna play for them because it’s something special that you grew up with. Like Sub Pop. Everyone in Seattle grows up with Sub Pop and that’s kinda the golden calf.
EE: I was just gonna say, it was very impressive for me to watch everything that preceded your first Neumo’s show, just the way that you guys did the MySpace attack and the public service announcements and the busing in the kids. They really took advantage of what’s available for getting out the word of a band that nobody’s ever heard of. And boom, your first Seattle show…
BV: Our first show ever!
EE: Was sold out.
BV: We came close to selling out. Close enough to be like wow, we actually did that.
EE: But it seemed like you guys put in a ton of time to make that happen. What followed was the buzziness.
BV: Most of the reason that things clicked with us and for me was, I worked in this small town and for Tracy I threw this winter ball and everyone had to dress up. I worked in a high school and I just promoted it to death because I wanted to break even but I also wanted it to be this really cool thing. It was our anniversary and it was a secret. I wrote her a string quartet, a waltz. So we all dressed up and I hired us a quartet and sheet music and everything. I promoted it super well, and most of my friends came and there were a ton of people there and it was really fun. I t wasn’t like any concert I’ve ever put on or been a part of. The light bulb for me was if you care enough about an event, if you tell people enough, and if you make it special then people will come and be into it. So that was kinda the guiding thing, give yourself a lot of time and do something really cool and play a damned good show. It was down to the wire. 40-hour weeks of promotion.
EE: I’m excited for you guys. Like, this I think this thing has happened with my band where what happens to a lot of bands, where Say Hi has been around for a while, and one you have several records out, people start to make up their minds and if you haven’t blown up, they’re like, “Oh well, I guess this band is never gonna blow up.” So to be in the position of like, embarking on your first tour and having your debut full-length come out, that’s a very exciting thing. I hope it rocks.
BV: It’s cool because I had time off. I played in In Praise of Folly for a really long time. But it’s really fresh. I took time off, I totally withdrew, I didn’t go to shows. I went to the symphony. I did things differently because I wanted to get out of the whole mindset. Everything is really fresh with this band. It’s really exciting. With Marshall [Verdoes’ brother] and Tracy, the energy there is beautiful. Like two of my best friends and my family. There’s this sense within the band that like … we just put so much into it. Someone mockingly said that we were desperate recently, and I as like you know, we’re not desperate in the sense of someone who wants a date, but there is a sense of desperation of like we wanna play really, really good shows. We wanna push it as hard as we can and have as much fun and ravel. We have no idea what’s gonna happen. But that’s kind of the fun of it, too. We wanted to play one show. We wanted to keep playing, but there wasn’t a 10-year plan. There was like a 6-month plan. So 10 years from now, who knows.
EE: The one thing that shocked me was I usually it takes years and years of touring for a band to get that tight. You guys sounded incredibly tight.
BV: Well thank you. This guy [pointing to his brother 14-year-old brother Marshall], when he gets tired after three hours of practice and he’s like, oh God, no more, and it’s like, you’re almost there. He can be on the basketball team and the coach is like, you need to run another lap. You’re like, all right, I’m on a basketball team.
Marshall Verdoes: It’s different!
BV: And you’ve been doing good. He told me the other day, “I really like band practice now.”
MV: I never said I really like it. I said it’s starting to get to the point where I like it. It used to get boring once in a while.
BV: Last night we didn’t practice and it felt so rewarding.
EE: So you guys practice every day?
BV: Literally, yeah.
EE: [Laughs] No, that’s, that’s great.
JZ: It sounds like you’ve both recently relaunched your projects. Eric, you changed the name of your band not too long ago, and Ben, this is your first project after in Praise of Folly.
EE: I actually considered just starting from scratch with the last records. This next one coming out is the second Say Hi record. I left New York, I worked really, really hard on that last record. It did sound different to me than some of the older stuff. I actually really wanted to start from scratch but I chickened out at the last minute. Just because this has been my career for the past several years and like the thought of starting from scratch and touring as first of three for 50 or 100 bucks a night … I just kinda chickened out. So I thought a good way to delineate it would be to just truncate the name, and it has worked in some senses, and it has not worked in some senses. I’ve found that the younger crowd has been very adamantly against the name change. I get e-mails all the time from kids who are like, “Change it back! You shouldn’t have done that!” And then there are other people — like there was a lot of press that ran on the last record, in publications that had never reviewed something before, and a lot of it was the same thing, like, “We never listened to this band before because it was called Say Hi to Your Mom. And we thought it would be like some stupid skate punk joke band. And we checked it out once it was called Say Hi and found its’ not that at all. And we love it.”
JZ: Something else I find you guys have in common is a sense of humor. Not silly humor, but smart humor. I’m talking about the PSAs you guys did, Ben, and then just the fact that your band was called Say Hi to Your Mom, Eric.
EE: I personally don’t like going to see bands where the singer thinks he’s Jim Morrison. They have all the moves down, they have the look down. I like music that’s fun. It doesn’t have to be funny, per se, but even something like Radiohead, where he can get fairly political in his lyrics, but he kinda always has a good time. You watch him play and he makes some funny faces. It’s nice for me to see bands who don’t take themselves too seriously. That’s always been a priority for me. I think it was a lot more blatant when I started the band. It has become kind of about finding the balance between not taking yourself too seriously and writing something that’s poignant, that can actually evoke an emotional response that’s different from just laughter.
BV: Another thing that really clicked for me in the time that I took off, that was the time when I got married. And I started to realize how, and I always cite Tracy as being one o the main factors, is that like the spectrum of being able to evoke more than one idea. A lot of the early stuff I wrote was so in my head, so idea based or foreboding, that when I started writing for this band I kinda opened up. I don’t ever wanna write joke music — it’s never been about that, the actual chords or notes, there’s nothing funny. You don’t have to have jokes per se — maybe this guitar riff is over the top and makes you smile at the absurdity, which is really good. You listen to Zeppelin and it’s like, really? Did they just do that? But it’s great. It brings you joy but also at the same time I wish I could do that. It’s really good. And I think you wanna take people through that at a show or on a record. You want them to experience something profound in more than one direction. I feel like it’s been a real effort to bring that sense of spectrum, but also the absurdity at times. I hope that we succeed.
JZ: One other thing, and I’m not sure how to say this, but both of your bands sound, to me, quintessentially indie. That’s sort of stupid, I know, but I’m not sure how else to describe it. Angular guitars. Dense song structures, smart lyrics. It’s interesting that you guys come from different places, but ended up in Seattle making music with a similar sensibility.
BV: I don’t know what your music education was, but I started on the [Smashing] Pumpkins. Those are the first obvious bands people give to you but then after that it was a very standard indie-rock education. Even though Radiohead isn’t an indie-rock band proper, Radiohead and Dinosaur Jr. and Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. You threw them all into the mix. And then maybe go into a weirder route. I started getting into Joan of Arc and math rock bands like Don Caballero.
MV: They’re so good…
BV: But the last couple years it’s just been classic rock. The fact that they’re playing these songs right now is totally distracting. That Pink Floyd [“Have a Cigar” is on the restaurant PA], I love it. I’m obsessed with those giant, grandiose… Yes is my favorite band right now.
EE: I think except for the math rock part, that’s identical to my musical education. What I started on, and like now, the past year I’ve been listening to Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and Zeppelin and all of the old stuff. I think taking a step back, that’s totally accurate, because with Mt. St. Helens, they do have those math-rocky little tangents that they go on, and that makes total sense to me. How old are you?
EE: I’m five years older than you, so I actually started playing music when Motley Crue and Guns N Roses were my favorite bands. I taught myself to play guitar by playing along to “Appetite for Destruction.” But after that Smashing Pumpkins became my template. It kinda followed that path exactly except for the math rock. So good ear on that one.