SXSW Interview: In Tall Buildings
Man. The In Tall Buildings record is good; did you check out Nicole’s review? Well, in case you wanted to know a little bit about the story behind the album, Diver, we’ve got the inside scoop courtesy of Erik himself. This will also give you a good heads up as to why you should check out ITB during SXSW; it’s one of the shows I’m really anticipating, and I really appreciate Erik’s thoughtful answers, so read on to hear what he has to say.
ATH: There’s so much going on all over your new record, musically speaking. Did you have any studio help in recording Driver?
Erik: I performed and recorded everything you hear on the album. It wasn’t a distinct mission of mine starting out, or some pillar of the album by any means. It’s just the way I tend to work. I usually work gradually over time, and when the moment strikes I throw up a mic, get the sound I need, and hit record. At one point I tried to bring in a couple friends and record live as a band for one particular song, but my computer kept crashing that day, the session was abandoned, and I ultimately completed that song by myself. Eventually, the album was almost done and nobody else had yet made an appearance, so I finished it that way for continuity’s sake.
ATH: Your bio says it took almost four years to complete Driver. Is that a typical time span for you to write and record, or did your various other projects impact the recording of the album? It would seem like that sort of time span might lead one to dwell on the tiniest imperfections…was that the case?
Erik: Actually the more dangerous tendency is getting overly comfortable with how a song exists when it’s still in progress and fundamentally unfinished. You get to know your own recordings so intimately, and eventually you forget how the finished song sounded in your head. You begin to accept the ‘demo’ as the song itself. This is not necessarily bad every time, but for me it’s something to be wary of. I think I sometimes fail to bring a song to where I initially knew it needed to go, and I end up with something else entirely. I’m okay with this though, as I think it yields something unique to me and my process. That said, I’m also working on finishing songs more quickly and deliberately once I’ve started them.
ATH: What’s your favorite track on Driver? I’m always interested to see if the artists love the “single” or if there’s another track that has a larger personal meaning to them.
Erik: Exiled is one that I’m particularly proud of. I like the heavy mood of it and the different dramatic spaces it weaves in and out of. I also love I’ll Be Up Soon, which is one that came very easily to me. I was playing guitar with such a heavy tape delay on it, and I had the delay running to its own amp in the room which created this massive amount of space and depth, literally. It was just such a joy to play those chords like that, and the song basically wrote itself based on the vibe created by the guitar.
ATH: You’ve got this incredibly gentle voice. Do you have a drink routine to keep things in working order when you tour? Tea and honey? Humidifier? Or have you just been fortunate to be blessed with wonderful instrument?
Erik: I’ve found the only thing I need to do in order to sing well is to simply be singing! A lot. If I haven’t performed in weeks or months, I need to be singing my way through the set every day for at least a week before my voice will get to where it needs to be for a show. Drinking a ton of water is also helpful, and not in my nature.
ATH: Driver’s being released by one of my favorite labels (not to mention an Austin label). How did you hook up with Brian? What do you like about Western Vinyl?
Erik: I have been a fan of Western Vinyl for several years, and I couldn’t be happier to be working with Brian. I’ve always felt some cosmic kinship with his aesthetic, the music he chooses to work with, the overall look and feel of his brand. He received my finished record and liked it, and right then I felt no need to send it to anyone else. Now that we’re working together I’ve also come to greatly appreciate how directly communicative and simply no-nonsense of a label WV is.
ATH: There’s this extremely intimate emotion to your music. How do you translate that intimacy to the live performance? Will you be performing solo or with various friends?
Erik: Translating the music in a live setting is a challenge I know all too well. Earlier on in the life of ITB I think I was too focused on maintaining as many of the recordings’ layers as possible, unfortunately to a fault. I was so caught up with looping my guitar, keeping in sync with the sampler, making sure both of these elements could be heard adequately in the monitors, etc. It kept me from giving an honest performance. Too much of the time I lacked soul because I was too distracted with the tangibles on stage. This time around I’m much more comfortable with the prospect of letting the live music exist as its own format entirely, and I’m paring down on the pedals, loops, and knick-knacks. The show will consist of a varying number of band members, depending on the situation, and it will be much more about the players and their individual voices. You’ll likely see me out there with Quin Kirchner (drums) and Matt Ulery (bass), both incredible Chicago musicians that have played with me since the beginning.
ATH: Along those same lines…what’s the best place you can imagine for someone to encounter Driver? Headphones? Bedroom? Etc.
Erik: The other day I read a tweet in which someone asked a friend “Have you listened to In Tall Buildings yet?” And the friend replied something like “I streamed it somewhere, but I wasn’t really paying attention.” I’ll spare you my commentary on the state of the internet-based music-listening experience. I like to listen to albums, and I like making albums. They’re a big, ambitious, mountain of a format, and they take months or years of hard work and care. As a listener, I like to put on a record from the top, hit play, and go along on a little journey. And I especially love listening to albums on CD in my car. Pardon the literal reference, but I think Driver will be good for that.
ATH: What’s the story behind the name, In Tall Buildings?
Erik: I borrowed it from John Hartford. He wrote a song called “In Tall Buildings” that’s somewhat of a lament for country life after spending all of one’s adult years working a desk job in the city just to pay the bills. I don’t relate directly with this narrative, I just liked it as a name under which I could work. I grew up in downtown Chicago, and I wrote and recorded my first record while living in a high-rise apartment overlooking Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan. I liked how the name spoke a bit of that upbringing. I also just liked how it sounded.